- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 9, 2003

Some U.S. Border Patrol agents in Arizona obtained "kickbacks" as incentives to stay at various lodging facilities in the area, according to a report yesterday by the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General.
The report, sought by Rep. Jim Kolbe, Arizona Republican, said the incentives included cash, food vouchers, free meals and gym memberships. The report also said some Patrol supervisors rented rooms to subordinate agents and improperly were offered cash or gifts such as televisions in return.
Hundreds of new agents have been assigned to the Tucson sector since 1999 as part of "Operation Safeguard," an Immigration and Naturalization Service strategy to gain control of the Southwest border.
Similar operations in El Paso and San Diego have shifted the flow of illegal aliens entering the United States to the Tucson area.
"When Operation Safeguard was initiated, INS management failed to plan adequately for the enormous lodging requirements to support detailed employees," said Inspector General Glenn A. Fine. "INS did not provide to detailed agents adequate guidance related to temporary assignments in support of Operation Safeguard until after these allegations surfaced."
Mr. Fine said INS never attempted to negotiate a lodging rate at local hotels for the agents at a lower cost to the government, noting that INS officials could have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars had they done so.
He said many of the agents received kickbacks to rent at certain lodging facilities, although he noted that some agents returned or refused to accept them. He said prosecutors declined to bring charges on most of the cases, and that the matter had been referred to INS for "appropriate administrative action."
The report said some agents sought government reimbursements of $55 a night at area hotels and that while they were given receipts showing that amount, they actually only paid $35 a night.
"We believe INS should examine each of these cases and make a decision as to whether the employee should be held accountable," Mr. Fine said. "At a minimum, we believe employees who accepted cash kickbacks from lodging providers and claimed the full allowable amount for lodging should be required to reimburse the government this amount."
Mr. Kolbe called on INS to "ensure that it is operating with the highest standards of integrity," adding that there would be House hearings on the matter.
He said INS should negotiate reduced lodging rates, demand reimbursement from employees, discipline those who filed false vouchers, provide more guidance to its employees, and strengthen its review process.
INS, which oversees the Border Patrol, said in a statement that "corrective actions" began immediately after the accusations surfaced. The statement said the majority of accusations were unsubstantiated, but review was continuing.
"While even one irregularity is unacceptable, the improprieties reported by the OIG do not indicate widespread violations of the law by INS employees," the statement said. "Any such conclusion is not reflected in the findings of the OIG report."
Mr. Fine said the rapid increase in Border Patrol agents in southern Arizona presented a significant stimulus to that economy, and that local lodging providers welcomed the increased business. But, he said, the agents were left on their own to secure lodging.
"Until after the complaints that were the basis for this investigation arose, however, INS management did not provide policy or ethical guidance to its employees concerning the incentives that the lodging providers offered," he said.

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