WASHINGTON — The Department of Homeland Security announced Thursday that it would review the disciplinary process for its employees after The New York Times reported that the agency’s inspector general removed damaging findings from investigative reports of domestic violence and sexual misconduct by employees. .
“Deeply troubling reports this spring underscored the need for urgent action,” Alejandro N. Mayorkas, Secretary of Homeland Security, said in a statement which cited the Times article and added that the changes would include “centralizing the decision-making process for disciplinary actions” so that “reports of serious misconduct are handled by a dedicated group of well-trained people, who are not immediate supervisors of the employees”. .”
Mr. Mayorkas announced a review of the department’s disciplinary process in April, after The Times published his article; relied on internal documents first obtained by the Government Oversight Projectan independent watchdog group in Washington.
An internal DHS investigation found that more than 10,000 employees of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Secret Service and the Transportation Security Administration had experienced sexual harassment or conduct inappropriate sexual activity at work, more than a third of those surveyed, according to a draft report.
The draft also described a pattern in which agencies used cash payments, with disbursements of up to $255,000, to resolve sexual harassment complaints without investigating or punishing the perpetrators.
But top assistants to the department’s inspector general, Joseph V. Cuffari, said in written comments that the findings detailing sexual misconduct should be removed because they were “incendiary” or “calling into question the disciplinary outcome in these cases.”
Mr. Cuffari also directed his staff to delete parts of another draft report on domestic violence committed by agents of the department’s law enforcement agencies because it was about “challenging DHS disciplinary decisions without complete data.”
The announced reforms underscore a deepening rift between the Department of Homeland Security and its inspector general. While Mayorkas has taken steps to address the allegations in the reports, Cuffari and other top officials in the inspector general’s office have downplayed the significance of the findings or fiercely defended his removal.
The inspector general’s office “agrees with Secretary Mayorkas that DHS should be a professional environment free from sexual harassment and other misconduct,” a statement from Mr. Cuffari’s office said. “We also support the Secretary’s commitment to promote accountability. We look forward to reviewing the significant reforms the secretary directed the department to implement, and we will continue to do our part to monitor these issues in the department.”
The inspectors general are independent internal watchdogs of federal agencies, and Homeland Security officials have said they were previously unaware of the findings omitted from the reports.
In a letter sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee last month, Mr. Cuffari described an agency that had been crippled by dysfunctionhe blamed senior officials in his office who oversaw the investigations for deliberately withholding information from him, and criticized the “intransigence” of the inspectors who wrote the reports.
Cuffari said in the letter that he may never release the sexual misconduct report, which has not been published since a nearly complete draft was distributed in December 2020, because its findings are now too old.
“The report has been plagued with problems from the start,” Mr. Cuffari wrote, adding that “these problems caused serious delays and, as a result, the information in the most recent preliminary report does not meet the ‘timeliness’ criteria that it is found in article 2 of the Law of the General Inspector.”
Instead, Mr. Cuffari said his office would launch another sexual misconduct investigation that would include a new survey of DHS employees. He has also offered to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the two domestic violence and sexual misconduct investigations. Congressional committees investigating Cuffari have not publicly responded to that offer.
Gordon S. Heddell, inspector general of the Department of Defense under President Barack Obama and the Department of Labor under President George W. Bush, criticized Cuffari for publicly blaming his subordinates, adding that an inspector general must take responsibility and address problems without undermining their subordinates.
“I would never have written this,” said Heddell, who now works as a private consultant. “To me, what he’s saying is, ‘I’m running a very dysfunctional office.'”