Friday, September 12, 2003

Two veteran Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents at a law enforcement center in Vermont have requested an investigation into “gross mismanagement” at the facility they say has prevented agents from tracking terrorists, illegal aliens and drug smugglers.

Agents Steve Letares and Mathew Markiewicz said “unethical and unlawful” conduct by supervisors at the Law Enforcement Support Center (LESC) in Williston, Vt., threatened both national security and public safety.

“It is our inherent legal obligation to … report widespread fraud, waste and abuse, gross mismanagement and incompetence, at one of the nation’s premier law enforcement facilities,” they told ICE Assistant Secretary Michael J. Garcia in a 10-page letter last month, a copy of which was obtained this week by The Washington Times.

“We believe LESC is at risk of imploding due to the extreme, exhibited incompetence and severe mismanagement.”

Mr. Garcia recently visited the LESC facility and, according to ICE officials, ordered an immediate inquiry to determine the validity of the accusations. Investigators have been sent from Washington to Vermont and interviews of LESC agents have begun, the officials said.

LESC provides information to state and local police agencies on the immigration status of aliens suspected of crimes or under arrest. Its computer-based data system contains information on lawful permanent residents, naturalized citizens, immigration violators and others in whom there is a “special interest.”

Last year, LESC drew the attention of Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, who asked if the center’s mismanagement had hampered the nation’s ability to control its borders and if criminal investigators at LESC were being misused.

At the time, Mr. Grassley complained that LESC agents were not doing any criminal investigative work, but instead had been assigned to administrative chores, which should have been handled by dozens of law-enforcement technicians already on the LESC staff.

When the accusations first surfaced, LESC was a part of the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). LESC is now a part of ICE, a new bureau under the Department of Homeland Security.

Mr. Markiewicz and Mr. Letares said that because LESC agents were prohibited from doing investigative chores mandated by Congress, the country’s national security was threatened “during the most demanding time in our nation’s history.”

They said LESC management had fostered such an “unhealthy and dysfunctional working environment” that several employees had either quit, been wrongfully terminated, left to work for other agencies and/or had brought legal action against LESC managers.

“The wanton manner in which management has conducted themselves is not only regressive in nature, but most importantly, outright appalling and deplorable,” they said, adding that supervisors employed antiquated management practices because of incompetence and engaged in “cover-ups” that threatened public safety and national security.

“Had we not been part of this organization or been privy to what has been outlined here, we could have never imagined this to have taken place,” they said. “What is transpiring at the LESC is nothing more than a national disgrace.”

The agents noted that LESC is located near Lake Champlain, the country’s sixth-largest waterway, which has become a major drug- and alien-smuggling corridor and is a potential entry route for terrorists. But, they said, law enforcement efforts were nonexistent because 20 LESC investigative agents were barred from undertaking field cases.

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