- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Bush administration has awarded a $61,200 bonus to Border Patrol Chief David V. Aguilar, whose agency has been criticized in the past year by Congress for delays in a $20 million fence project and for an accelerated hiring program that auditors said threatens to reduce qualified field supervisors.

The chief also has been criticized by his own rank and file for not supporting two agents sent to prison for shooting a drug smuggler in the buttocks as he fled back to Mexico, and greeted with a unanimous “no confidence” vote by the union representing non-supervisory agents.

The presidential merit award, equal to 35 percent of Chief Aguilar’s $172,000 annual pay, is 1.7 times larger than the base starting salary of $36,658 for a Border Patrol agent. The bonus has angered many field agents, some of whom told the chief in a terse, unsigned letter that the agency has been damaged and field agents jeopardized by his “politically expedient decisions.”

The letter, a copy which was obtained by The Washington Times, challenged Chief Aguilar’s job performance since his May 2004 appointment, saying there had “never been a time when our chief has been so out of touch with the field, or a time when our chief has become a politician and lost sight of his most important responsibility: to be an advocate for the agency and its mission.”

“You clearly see yourself as an agent of change for political bosses rather than a person who has been entrusted to ensure that the Border Patrol remains a top-notch law enforcement agency, ready and able to carry out its critical function,” the letter said.

Mr. Aguilar declined to be interviewed, deferring to his spokesman, who issued a statement defending the chief’s work without addressing the merits of the bonus.

Jeffrey C. Robertson, assistant commissioner for public affairs at U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which oversees the Border Patrol, acknowledged that the chief had received the letter but declined to comment publicly on what action, if any, had been taken on it.

Mr. Robertson said, however, that decisions concerning the border fence project and the academy classes were made “corporately and ultimately” by CBP and the Department of Homeland Security, not Chief Aguilar, whom he described as a “zealous advocate” for the Border Patrol’s front-line agents

The agents’ four-page letter focuses on two major topics: a virtual fence project along the Arizona-Mexico border that it called “ineffective and too costly,” and changes at the Border Patrol Academy to meet a presidential mandate of hiring 6,000 more agents by the end of 2008.

The letter accused Chief Aguilar of ignoring top Border Patrol executives who unanimously opposed the academy changes.

Fifteen field agents contacted by The Times all said they had seen the letter and said the concerns it raised were “right on” or “pretty accurate.” They said it had been widely circulated, and that its writers did not sign the letter for fear of losing their jobs or receiving some sort of punishment.

The letter focused on the Presidential Rank Award, which President Bush gave in December to Chief Aguilar for “sustained extraordinary accomplishment.” Career senior executives from across government are nominated by their agency heads, evaluated by citizen panels and designated by the president — each receiving a bonus equal to 35 percent of their annual salary.

The 2008 awards will be given in February to 57 government executives from 24 agencies.

Chief Aguilar was being paid $172,000 annually at the time of the award, Border Patrol spokesman Michael Friel said, but his salary was raised to $177,000 on Jan. 4. Mr. Friel also confirmed the bonus amount.

The letter is the most recent evidence of continuing dissension within the Border Patrol ranks. Chief Aguilar was bitterly challenged by many of the agency’s rank and file for not supporting Agents Ignacio Ramos and Alonso Compean, who were convicted in the shooting of Osvaldo Aldrete-Davila, who later pleaded guilty to federal drug smuggling charges in a separate smuggled load of marijuana.

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