U.S. Customs: More Than People Cross the Borders

By Conroy, Bill | Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal, March/April 2002 | Go to article overview

U.S. Customs: More Than People Cross the Borders


Conroy, Bill, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal


COVER STORY

The blockbuster movie "The Matrix" includes a pivotal scene in which the lead character, Neo, is given a choice between waking up in his bed and continuing on with his life as it has always been, or staying in "Wonderland" and seeing just "how deep the rabbit hole goes."

That scene goes a long way in explaining my experience in digging into the "wonderland" that is the U.S. Customs Service. I've spent the past year falling into the "rabbit hole" and still don't know how deep it goes, but I can no longer pretend that the rabbit hole doesn't exist.

U.S. Customs has a vast charge in safeguarding the integrity of the U.S. border with respect to commerce and national security.

The federal agency is responsible for enforcing hundreds of laws and international agreements. It collects more than $22 billion annually from import duties and other fees, and processes some 480 million land, air and sea passengers each year.

With those facts in mind, and in light of disturbing disclosures made to the San Antonio Business Journal by numerous sources within Customs, I decided to move forward on a series of stories exploring a pattern of alleged mismanagement and corruption within the federal agency, including allegations that extend back to drug trafficking nearly a decade ago.

In addition to reviewing stacks of legal filings, internal Customs documents, congressional testimony and other public records for the stories, I interviewed dozens of individuals, many of them whistleblowers - including current and former Customs supervisors, inspectors and investigative agents. The series touched on corruption issues affecting the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas, Arizona and California.

Sources within Customs came out of the woodwork as I dug into this project, with each story leading to new contacts that helped drive the next story. I had to deal with many sources within the agency on background or a not-forattribution basis. They feared, I felt legitimately, retaliation if exposed. Still, in those cases, I secured documentation or additional sourcing to support any allegations. On more than one occasion, that documentation showed up in my mailbox anonymously.

The allegations raised by these whistleblowers boil down to an assertion that Customs is operated hrough a "good-of-boy" system of management hat is perpetuating a culture of reprisal and cronyism.

Among the Customs Service practices exposed n the series were the following:

Customs management has a policy of shredding records used in disciplinary actions in order to keep those documents away from union officials - specifically the National Treasury Employees Union. The records being shredded are called "briefing papers," according to legal documents obtained by the Business Journal. After a story appeared in the Business Journal about the practice, the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Inspector General launched an investigation into the document-shredding allegation.

A Customs inspector supervisor in Laredo, Texas, created false drug seizure reports in the Treasury Enforcement Communications System using the names and Social Security numbers of Customs inspectors -- making the reports read as though the inspectors had written the narratives themselves. The supervisor allegedly falsified as many as 16 drug seizure records for the purpose of embellishing her own record. In the wake of the Business Journal's story on the falsified reports, a federal judge asked the U.S. Attorney's Office to review the allegations.

Border terror

Information gained through the Customs investigation was suddenly cast into a new light in the wake of the Sept. …

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