Homeland Security tightens scrutiny of internal misconduct

Jun 16, 2022, 12:32 PM | Updated: 3:27 pm
FILE - A U.S. Department of Homeland Security plaque is displayed a podium as international passeng...

FILE - A U.S. Department of Homeland Security plaque is displayed a podium as international passengers arrive at Miami international Airport where they are screened by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Nov. 20, 2020, in Miami. Employees accused of misconduct at the Department of Homeland Security could face more stringent penalties under an overhaul announced Thursday that follows complaints about the handling of internal discipline in the third largest U.S. government agency. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)

(AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Employees accused of misconduct at the Department of Homeland Security could face more stringent penalties under an overhaul announced Thursday that follows complaints about the handling of internal discipline in the third largest U.S. government agency.

DHS said it will standardize serious misconduct investigations in a sprawling organization that includes Customs and Border Protection, the Transportation Security Administration, the Secret Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The new procedures are the result of a review ordered by Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in April after reports revealed that thousands of employees had experienced sexual harassment and misconduct and that some DHS components paid settlements without penalizing or even investigating the perpetrators.

“The deeply concerning reports this spring underscored the need for urgent action to prevent and address harassment and other misconduct in the workplace,” Mayorkas said in a statement outlining the changes.

Some of the changes to the internal disciplinary procedures, Mayorkas said, have already been put in place while others will occur in the coming months after consultations with the various unions representing an agency that has about 230,000 employees.

A key aspect of the changes will be to make the response to allegations of misconduct as well as the potential penalties more uniform across DHS, the agency said. It will also centralize investigations within the components to avoid scenarios in which serious cases are handled by an employee’s supervisor.

Employees found to have committed some kind of misconduct, which can include such behavior as theft, sexual harassment or abusing people detained by the law enforcement components, have typically faced a broad range of potential penalties.

The penalties will be more specifically spelled out and the range narrowed under the new policy to create a “more accurate system of accountability,” a senior DHS official said.

In some cases, when the potential range has been too broad, the penalty for misconduct has been “inadequate,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the policy changes ahead of their release.

The agency didn’t specify how the changes would affect individual components, because there is a wide spectrum in how each now handles allegations of misconduct. But the official acknowledged that the new policy would address criticism of Customs and Border Protection.

“There has been public criticism of some of the discipline at CBP and I think it stands to reason that we may do more centralization there as well as other places,” the official said.

The impetus for the review was the release of details from draft reports from the DHS Office of Inspector General.

One from December 2020 showed that more than 10,000 employees of CBP, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Secret Service and the TSA had experienced sexual harassment or sexual misconduct at work — over one-third of employees who responded to a survey.

Another showed that DHS law enforcement agencies paid nearly $1 million in settlements to 21 employees to resolve allegations of sexual harassment despite inspectors finding no record of an investigation or disciplinary action.

The draft reports were obtained by the nonpartisan Project on Governmental Oversight and published by The New York Times.

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Homeland Security tightens scrutiny of internal misconduct