A top Obama administration official caved to political pressure to approve immigration applications from well-connected wealthy foreigners, ignoring warnings from career officers who said the investor visas should be denied, an inspector general concluded in a report Tuesday.
Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, whom President Obama promoted even while he was under investigation, meddled in three cases, creating “an appearance of favoritism and special access,” the department’s inspector general said in a 99-page report that stops just short of accusing Mr. Mayorkas of lying.
Inspector General John Roth said the cases involved major Democrats — former Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell, Sen. Harry Reid, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Anthony Rodham, brother of former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton — who made personal appeals for better treatment. In each instance, Mr. Mayorkas complied, often immediately after speaking with one of the well-connected Democrats.
In the case of Mr. Reid, Nevada Democrat, Mr. Mayorkas ordered that applications from investors in a Las Vegas casino be expedited and insisted that his agency give weekly briefings to Mr. Reid’s office. In the case of Mr. McAuliffe, Mr. Mayorkas showed “unprecedented” intervention, Mr. Roth said.
“Mr. Mayorkas communicated with stakeholders on substantive issues, outside of the normal adjudicatory process and intervened with the career USCIS staff in ways that benefited the stakeholders,” Mr. Roth concluded. “In each of these three instances, but for Mr. Mayorkas’ intervention, the matter would have been decided differently.”
Mr. Mayorkas filed a 32-page rebuttal arguing that he took such a keen interest in the cases because he thought the program was troubled, and he was trying to set it right during his tenure as director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. He said what the inspector general saw as interference was actually leadership by a hands-on director intent on fixing “a gravely flawed program.”
“I could have taken a far easier path as the director of USCIS, assumed a more ceremonial role, traveled far and wide on trips of interest and enjoyed the perks. Instead, I worked tirelessly and tackled the agency’s biggest challenges,” Mr. Mayorkas said.
But the report is already beginning to sting.
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican, said he would hold a hearing Thursday to probe the inspector general’s findings, and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican, said Mr. Mayorkas created a “crisis of confidence” in his ability to lead at his department.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, said the report taints President Obama, who promoted Mr. Mayorkas even after the initial reports appeared and raised questions about other immigration decisions that may break the law or violate regulations.
“The IG’s findings are very serious, especially given the role Mr. Mayorkas now plays in the department,” Mr. Grassley said.
He demanded that Mr. Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, Mr. Mayorkas’ boss, punish him.
That is unlikely. Mr. Johnson said in a statement that he has talked with his deputy but found Mr. Mayorkas to be “honest and patriotic,” and any fault he has is that he “can at times be very hands-on.”
Instead, Mr. Johnson blamed the EB-5 investor program itself for the problems.
The program is designed to attract wealthy foreigners who promise to invest money in the U.S.
Investors must make capital investments of at least $500,000 and must prove their money will create or sustain at least 10 jobs. That means USCIS officers have to evaluate complex business transactions to make judgments.
The program has grown under Mr. Obama, with initial applications rising from about 1,000 petitions a year when he took office to nearly 11,000 petitions in fiscal year 2014. The program approves about 75 percent of initial applications.
Critics say the program is rife with fraud and amounts to allowing the wealthy to buy their way into the U.S.
Mr. Roth said Mr. Mayorkas’s behavior was striking because it spawned so many objections. He said usually there will be a few complaints, but in this instance a number of whistleblowers at all levels came forward to say they thought their boss was stepping over the line.
In his report, Mr. Roth appeared to question Mr. Mayorkas’ veracity. He repeatedly highlighted instances in which Mr. Mayorkas denied he had contact with a well-placed Democrat only to have the records show the contact took place. Other times Mr. Mayorkas said he was communicating at the behest of his superiors, though no evidence of such requests was found.
In one instance, Mr. Mayorkas disregarded the advice of USCIS attorneys to communicate with an executive seeking to get petitions approved.
In the case involving Mr. Reid, Mr. Mayorkas agreed to expedite an application from a Las Vegas casino after speaking several times with the senator and his staff. Career officers said the application didn’t deserve quick attention.
Mr. Mayorkas also had his agency brief Mr. Reid’s office weekly on the application, investigators said.
The case with Mr. McAuliffe happened before he became governor and involved an electric car project that he led, but which USCIS officers thought was bogus. They recommended denying EB-5 investor applications related to the project.
That was when Mr. McAuliffe began contacting Mr. Mayorkas, and he took an intense personal interest in the case, exchanging calls and emails with Mr. McAuliffe and his investment firm, investigators said.
Mr. Roth said Mr. McAuliffe and a number of other potential witnesses refused to speak to investigators, which hampered their ability to figure out exactly what went on.
Mr. McAuliffe’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
The investigative report also found problems with Homeland Security’s records retention, reminiscent of the questions surrounding the Internal Revenue Service, the Environmental Protection Agency and now the State Department and Mrs. Clinton’s email practices there while she was secretary.
The inspector general’s exhaustive investigation included about 50 interviews, more than 1 million emails and other computer files, and an analysis of more than 40,000 phone calls.
Mr. Mayorkas, a former federal prosecutor, filed a lengthy rebuttal acknowledging that he did get involved in cases, including EB-5 petitions, but only when it raised a major humanitarian, legal or policy issue.
“The parties involved had no bearing on my interest in a case, and I had no interest in whether a particular application or petition was approved or denied,” he said. “It was my paramount responsibility to ensure that we enforced the law.”
He described an agency where he repeatedly met resistance in trying to improve operations and pointed to several instances in which he fired emails back to petitioners that he thought crossed the line in trying to get him personally involved in cases.
Mr. Mayorkas said he regularly tried to help the poor and needy in their petitions, and cannot be accused of showing favoritism to the wealthy.
He also said he was more involved several years ago when the program needed guidance, but he insisted he left the program on better footing, which is why his involvement declined.
Mr. Johnson appeared to disagree that the problems have been solved. He said in his response that he was creating a new protocol to try to remove political influence.
Mr. Obama elevated Mr. Mayorkas last year from head of USCIS to the deputy secretary’s position for all of Homeland Security. Democrats, led by Mr. Reid, pushed his nomination through the Senate, notwithstanding objections from Republicans who said they should wait for Mr. Roth’s report.
Mr. Mayorkas likely would have been blocked had Mr. Reid not used the “nuclear option” to neuter Republicans’ power to filibuster nominees.
Mr. Reid’s office did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday afternoon. It was not clear from the report whether Mr. Reid cooperated with the investigation.