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Border chief wins bonus despite criticism

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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.

The agents were sentenced to 10- and 11-year prison terms.

The leadership of the National Border Patrol Council, which represents the agency's non-supervisory personnel, voted a no-confidence resolution against the chief in April 2007. It won the unanimous endorsement of all 100 of the NBPC's national leadership.

The union later accused the chief of trying to "intimidate" field agents to discredit the vote, saying he "willfully and blatantly" violated federal guidelines by sending a top aide to seek a "show of hands" among field agents for those who supported the chief in the wake of the no-confidence vote -- knowing the agents would not risk retaliation by publicly opposing the chief.

The letter outlines what it called a "disconnect" between Chief Aguilar and front-line agents and cites a "growing frustration" over the chief's "misguided policies and politics."

It criticized a new fence along 28 miles of the Arizona-Mexico border, saying taxpayers had spent more than $20 million on a project that "has not been fully functional for a single day since we were forced to accept delivery by your office." It said that while the fence, known as Project 28, was supposed to provide a blueprint for effective border security, field agents had no input into its development and Chief Aguilar ignored warnings that it had no chance to live up to expectations.

"The Department of Homeland Security and CBP went overboard hyping this project and you avoided political risk by remaining silent while we were being force-fed inadequate equipment," it said. "Where was your voice of advocacy to make sure we got what we needed to successfully carry out our mission?"

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded in a report last year that it did not know what criteria had been used to accept the $20.6 million project near Sasabe, Ariz., and that the fence did not meet expectations and was not "the ultimate system" that had been envisioned. It also said field agents had not been consulted prior to its construction, and that Border Patrol executives in Washington slowed the project down.

The GAO said the scheduled 2008 deployment of about 100 miles of virtual fence in Arizona and Texas had been delayed until the end of 2011. Its future in the Obama administration is uncertain, because Mr. Obama and other Democrats have criticized the plan, although the president-elect earlier voted for it.

Mr. Robertson described the project as a "first step" in gaining operational control of the border, adding that while it had not fully met operational needs, it proved that the concept of linked sensor towers, ground-based radar and camera systems was solid, and demonstrated that work could begin toward developing a system to meet the needs of agents on the ground.

He also said Chief Aguilar had argued "uncompromisingly that the eventual deployed operational system had to first and foremost work for frontline agents in a way that made their jobs easier, safer and more effective." He said the project now includes the "full participation and input of Border Patrol agents."

During a House subcommittee hearing last year, Chief Aguilar acknowledged that senior Border Patrol officials had not consulted with the field agents who would use the system before it was installed. He told two House subcommittees that future projects would include increased input from field personnel.

In their letter, the agents also accused the chief of making "radical changes" at the Border Patrol Academy to meet a presidential mandate of recruiting, hiring and training 6,000 new agents by the end of Mr. Bush's term.

They said that when the chief first proposed the idea of an altered academy, top Border Patrol executives unanimously opposed it but he ignored the "substantive misgivings expressed by your senior field leaders" and went ahead with the changes without further consultation.

"You supported the transformation of one of the best law enforcement academies in the country into a diploma mill," they said, adding that the academy was altered and shortened to produce "more agents, not better agents."

"Many criminals were able to enter on duty here in Tucson because of the sloppy hiring practices implemented by your office as you strived to meet the political goal of hiring thousands of agents," the letter said. "Again, advocacy took a back seat to political appeasement. We are unsure to this day if we have successfully weeded out all the criminals you permitted to infiltrate our organization."

In a separate report, the GAO said there were serious questions about whether the Border Patrol adequately can supervise and train the 6,000 new agents. Despite assurances from agency executives, the report said, the planned addition of the agents on the southwestern border - coupled with the transfer of experienced agents to the northern border - will "likely reduce the overall experience level" of those on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The report described as "the larger challenge" the agency's ability to provide adequate supervision and training - post-deployment - for the influx of agents, adding that the Border Patrol will be "relying on a higher proportion of less seasoned agents" to supervise new agents.

The GAO first raised questions in April 2007 when it said the Border Patrol had let its on-the-job training of new field agents slip as it sought to meet the president's goal, adding that although its academy training program was "in line" with other law enforcement agencies, it is not clear whether hiring "such an unprecedented number of new agents" would become a strain.

Mr. Robertson said the hiring of 6,000 more Border Patrol agents to meet Mr. Bush's end-of-the-year mandate of 18,000 total agents was not a decision by Chief Aguilar but by Congress and the nation's political leadership "spurred on by the American people´s desire to gain control of the nation´s borders as quickly as possible."

He described the hirings as a "tremendous accomplishment," and added that while the Border Patrol Academy training had changed, its law enforcement courses and requirements had not.

"The truth about the academy is -- law enforcement training and immigration law classroom hours that Border Patrol Agents took before were left unchanged. Training today is different only because the Spanish language classroom work requirements have been adapted to address the new generation of agents-in-training allowing those proficient in the language to test out and go to their duty station earlier," he said.

"This common sense decision is saving taxpayers money by putting new Spanish proficient Border Patrol agents at their duty stations rather than in classrooms studying a language they already speak," he said, noting that the change had saved 22,191 classroom training days at a savings to taxpayers of $2.3 million.

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