Ronald D. Vitiello, President Trump’s pick to head ICE, lacks the spark to be the “change agent” embattled agency needs — and appears to have once posted a tweet comparing Mr. Trump to Dennis the Menace, agency labor union leaders said Wednesday.
Mr. Vitiello, a former Border Patrol chief, has been acting director at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for months, and goes before the Senate Homeland Security Committee on Thursday for his confirmation hearing to get the job permanently.
He has the backing of several high-powered former Homeland Security officials.
But 14 leaders of local chapters of the National ICE Council, which represents ICE officers, sent a letter to the committee saying they’re not convinced Mr. Vitiello is ready to upend the “corrupt ‘good old boy’ network” they said pervades at ICE.
“Our agency needs a real shake-up at the top and a new director who can bring change,” said Felix Luciano, president of Local 2805 in San Diego and the lead signer of the letter. “We never thought it could get this bad but the mismanagement, misconduct, and retaliation by our managers has gotten to a point where we had to speak out.”
Among their concerns was a tweet Mr. Vitiello sent in March 2016, from an account he maintained under @VitielloRonald. Under the caption “This I can tell you! 100%” he posted a picture of cartoon character Dennis the Menace juxtaposed with an image of Mr. Trump.
The tweet has been deleted, but is still stored on the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine website, and was reported on by Gizmodo.com last year.
“Had any rank and file employee in the field at ICE committed a similar act, that employee would be subject to discipline or removal under the ICE Employee Code of Conduct,” the ICE union officials said, calling the tweet a “failure of leadership.”
The union leaders also questioned Mr. Vitiello’s failure to be more decisive in July, when he first became acting ICE chief, amid violent “Abolish ICE” protests that shut down the agency’s building in Portland, Oregon.
They demanded the committee probe Mr. Vitiello’s decision-making before approving his nomination.
The officials also challenged an order Mr. Vitiello issued limiting their own ability to do their regular jobs while serving as union leaders. They said the result of that order is a loss of talent within the ranks.
Chris Crane, president of the National ICE Council, said rank-and-file employees are fed up.
“I’ve got my marching orders and will be pressing the Senate to conduct oversight and confirm a director who’s able and willing to end the mismanagement, misconduct, and incompetence demonstrated by ICE management.”
Aides to Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, the committee chairman, and Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, the ranking Democrat, didn’t return messages seeking comment.
Liz Johnson, an ICE spokeswoman, said the letter was misaimed, and said Mr. Vitiello has been working to build a good relationship with rank-and-file employees.
“While many of the claims in the letter pre-date Mr. Vitiello’s arrival at ICE, in his first few months on the job, he has made it a priority to meet directly with front line personnel and listen to their concerns,” she said. “If confirmed, he will be a strong advocate for the workforce and for proper oversight and management accountability.”
ICE officials have defended the agency’s response to the Portland situation, saying any blame should go to the city’s mayor, who told local police to stand down, letting the protests get out of hand.
For his part Mr. Vitiello has promised a collaborative role with ICE’s labor unions, telling the committee in written responses that he will respect the contracts.
“I believe it is in the best interest of the agency to maintain productive, transparent relationships with union leadership, members, and all employees,” he said.
He also had a meeting with Mr. Crane in August, a little over a month after he became acting director.
Mr. Vitiello started as a Border Patrol agent in 1985, working his way up the ranks to be deputy commissioner of Customs and Border Protection. In recent years he oversaw the early steps on Mr. Trump’s border wall, and built a reputation as a pragmatic leader with a low-key approach.
He also had the backing of the National Border Patrol Council, the labor union for Border Patrol agents.
In June, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen asked him to take over at ICE, naming him both deputy director and acting director.
Mr. Vitiello’s bid for permanent ICE chief is getting support from Republicans and Democrats who oversaw CBP.
Among them are Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and W. Ralph Basham, who served in the Bush administration, and R. Gil Kerlikowske, an Obama-era CBP commissioner.
“Ron Vitiello rates among the finest professionals and leaders I have had the pleasure to serve with,” Mr. Basham wrote in a letter to the committee, saying that his months as acting chief have already shown he’s on top of ICE’s top duties such as deporting criminals and combatting MS-13.
ICE hasn’t had a confirmed chief since the start of the Trump administration.
Former acting Director Tom Homan postponed his planned retirement to become acting chief in January 2017, staying on for 17 months and leading the agency against severe political headwinds.
Calls to abolish ICE gained traction among some left-wing activists and political candidates after this spring’s botched zero-tolerance border policy saw thousands of illegal immigrant parents jailed and their illegal immigrant children sent to shelters. The criticism hit ICE even though it played only a small role in facilitating that policy.