Nation/World

Border agents who made violent, lewd Facebook posts faced flawed disciplinary process, House investigation finds

WASHINGTON - A U.S. Customs and Border Protection discipline board found that 60 agents “committed misconduct” by sharing violent and obscene posts in secret Facebook groups but fired only two - far fewer than an internal discipline board had recommended, according to a House Oversight and Reform Committee report released Monday.

The report found “significant shortcomings” in the agency’s handling of the incidents and said most agents who engaged in misconduct are back on the job working with migrant adults and children.

They include a Border Patrol agent who posted a “sexually explicit doctored image” about a member of Congress, and a supervisor who “improperly” shared an internal video of a migrant falling off a cliff to their death, according to the report.

“These outcomes were the result of a number of failings at CBP, including an inconsistent disciplinary process, a failure to train on and enforce social media policies, and senior leadership’s failure to take appropriate actions despite knowledge of these Facebook groups,” said the report, which was prepared by staff from the committee’s Democratic majority.

The House investigation began in 2019 after explosive reports by ProPublica and others detailed violent, racist and sexist postings in private CBP Facebook groups online. Committee investigators said they had tried for more than a year to obtain access to witnesses and unredacted disciplinary records, but said the Trump administration refused to hand them over, even when the chair issued a subpoena.

The records finally became available in February, after President Biden took office, the committee said.

House investigators reviewed 135 case files of CBP employees alleged to have committed misconduct in Facebook groups.

Allegations of misconduct were “not substantiated” for 54 CBP employees. But the Office of Professional Responsibility, the internal affairs division, found 60 in violation of agency rules.

Of these, two were fired, 43 were suspended without pay, a dozen were handed letters of reprimand, and three were suspended with pay or some other discipline. Ten others retired before the investigation ended, and 11 received warnings.

The House report found CBP’s Discipline Review Board recommended firing as many as 24 agents for “serious misconduct,” and two retired. The rest received “significantly lighter” punishments instead, the report said. Eighteen were suspended, another got a reprimand letter and still another an “oral admonishment.”

For instance, the report said, the board had recommended the firing of the Border Patrol agent “who posted a sexually explicit doctored image and derogatory comments about a Member of Congress.” Instead, he was suspended for 60 days and awarded back pay.

The Border Patrol supervisor “who improperly posted an internal CBP video” of a migrant falling to their death, as well as “an explicit and offensive comment” about a member of Congress was suspended for 30 days instead of being fired.

And an agent “with a history of multiple infractions” was allowed to retire with disability benefits after posting a photograph of a drowned father and child “and referring derisively to them as ‘floaters’,’” the report said.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., the committee chairwoman, said the report’s findings detail what she called a “broken disciplinary process” at CBP.

“CBP’s failure to prevent these violent and offensive statements by its own agents or impose adequate discipline creates a serious risk that this behavior will continue,” Maloney said in a statement. “As we saw with the mistreatment of migrants by Border Patrol agents in Del Rio, Texas last month, systemic behavior problems within CBP persist.”

One of the two fired Border Patrol agents had posted offensive images of a “white supremacist symbol and sexualized images of a Member of Congress,” though the decision is still pending arbitration, according to the report. The second dismissed agent shared “multiple offensive and abhorrent posts, including a doctored picture of a Member of Congress being violently sexually abused and raped,” and graphics and comments bullying subordinates.

CBP did not respond to a request for comment on the report.

The most prominent private group had more than 9,500 followers and was known as “I’m 10-15,” Border Patrol lingo for “aliens in custody.”

The report found that CBP leaders had been aware of the misconduct on “I’m 10-15″ since August 2016, at the end of the Obama administration, but took “minimal action” to improve social media training and failed to quickly hold people accountable.

Facebook also declined to allow CBP’s internal affairs unit to examine the posts in the secret group, so investigators had to rely on media reports, the report said.

Of the 60 agents who committed misconduct, the report found, 57 of them are working with migrants today, the House report said. “The vast majority of agents - including those who made degrading and even threatening comments about migrants - received only minor discipline,” the report said.

It notes that former Border Patrol chiefs Carla Provost and Rodney Scott were members of the Facebook group but did not report misconduct. The officials have stated they joined the group to gather feedback from the CBP workforce.

“Multiple CBP employees investigated for their actions on ‘I’m 10-15′ stated that the participation of Chief Provost, Acting Deputy Chief Scott, and other senior managers in the group gave them the impression that CBP leadership was aware of the group and the nature of its posts,” according to the report. CBP internal reviews did not recommend administrative action against Provost, Scott or other senior officials who belonged to the group, it noted.

The report recommended that CBP leaders hold social media violators accountable, strengthen social-media training, reform hiring processors to screen out applicants with “records of discrimination,” and take such violations into account when deciding future promotions. Officials should also prevent employees who display bias from working with “vulnerable” populations such as children, and address poor morale, the report said.

Agents told CBP internal investigators that the “I’m 10-15″ Facebook group was a way to commiserate over “job dissatisfaction” and low morale, the report said.

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