|English | Español||August 15, 2018 | Issue #33|
At the Threshold of Conscience
By Bill Conroy
List of disciplinary actions against Customs agents obtained through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by the author (140 kb PDF)
The Paper Trail: A list of sources used in this series (84 kb PDF)
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Some might argue that the charges and allegations laid out in this book, in many cases, are based on litigation that is still unresolved. As a result, the Customs agents who have filed the legal actions may, in the end, lose their cases—thereby absolving U.S. Customs.
For the sake of argument, let’s go down that path a bit. Let’s set aside cases like those involving Customs agents Ricardo Sandoval and Romeo Salinas, where juries have already found wrongdoing on the part of Customs; let’s set aside the congressional probe of the torpedoed Firestorm task force that resulted in a letter to President Clinton’s transition team recommending that top Treasury officials be removed from office; and let’s set aside the Freedom of Information documents that expose the blunders in Customs’ investigation of Agent Gary Friedli’s death and the mishandling of the “racist manifesto” incident in El Paso, Texas.
Even with those cases off the table, we are still left with one daunting question: What is prompting so many Customs employees to put their careers on the line to step forward as whistleblowers?
A letter sent to Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner in August 2002 lays out in clear terms what one former Customs employee believes is at the root of the problems. The letter, written by Jack M. Bigler—a former Customs agent and supervisor who worked in California, Texas and New Mexico—states the following:
...Let me tell you that the good old boys in the Southwest region use the same tactics as the good old boys on the Pacific Coast.
- Promote the little morons of whatever race/gender that kiss your ass and model themselves after you.
- Ignore the good police work that is done by special agents that don’t kiss your ass.
- Harass those agents unmercifully that dare to speak out, and do your level best to ruin their careers and lives.
Joe Silva, an attorney in El Paso who has represented FBI and Customs agents in discrimination and retaliation cases, offers the following insight into what is at stake for the whistleblowers in this struggle:
“The Customs Service has not shown any desire to resolve the underlying issues. They’ve dug their heels in…. They are using taxpayers’ resources in a horrible way.
“... At some point, the tide will turn. But that won’t happen unless courageous people like these agents stand up, and lot of times they are standing up even when they realize it’s a dead-end street for them.”
We as a nation can choose to ignore what these whistleblowers are saying, but it is at our own peril. We need to make some hard choices with respect to government reform and the so-called “war on drugs,” which arguably plays a lead role in fueling the corruption within law enforcement agencies like Customs.
Customs is like a fast train on bad track. We can be content with attaching the agency to a bigger bureaucracy—the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—in the hope that somehow that will solve the problem. But that’s like adding more cars to the train; it will only make the train do more damage when it does crash.
“If you simply paper over the problems of these agencies and shove them into a new department (DHS), the underlying problems will still exist,” stresses Ron Schmidt, who is the attorney handling the Hispanic Customs agents’ class-action lawsuit.
A former high-ranking Customs official, who still fears the agency will retaliate against him if his name appears in print, says the problems within Customs can best be understood in terms of what he calls “the threshold of conscience.”
He explains that if the culture of an agency is to “wink and look the other way” when it comes to the small misdeeds of a chosen few—for those being groomed by upper management for higher posts—then lowering the “threshold of conscience” another notch when more serious infractions occur becomes easier to justify. And, if left unchecked over time, you eventually have a powerful clique in control of an organization whose members all have dirt on each other, and who all have an incentive to protect and perpetuate that “brotherhood” at all costs.
“It becomes a culture built on cronyism and favoritism instead of putting the law first, values first, ethics first,” the former Customs official says. “We have to break that cycle….”
On a personal level, if this chronicle of Customs has taught me anything, it is that evil does exist, and that it’s at war with the good in this world, and that the battlefield is in our hearts. The borderline in that war may move one way or another over time, but the war doesn’t end, and the nature of the enemy doesn’t change. Like it or not, someone in society has to pull duty on that borderline, which is a task we have given to law enforcement.
But as participants in this grand experiment in democracy, we have a responsibility to those we put on the frontlines, a duty to ensure the laws they are asked to enforce are just, measured and in the enlightened best interest of society. In that light, the only way to stop an agency like Customs from derailing is to put it on a new track by creating a better, not a Big Brother, government.
The first casualty in that struggle to keep our democracy alive must be the war on drugs, which, in the final analysis, is really nothing more than a politically expedient excuse for perpetuating a culture of corruption. There is no easy fix here as far as I can see—short of drastic reform. And time is not on our side, because like an addict with a real bad habit, the poison (injected in daily doses of restricted civil liberties, decreased public security, bureaucratic dysfunction and malfeasance) is already coursing through the veins of our fragile republic, threatening to shut down its heart.
Read previous installments of Bill Conroy’s Borderline Security:
Bill Conroy has worked as a reporter or editor for the past eighteen years at newspapers in Wisconsin, Arizona, Minnesota and Texas. His investigative reporting over the past five years has focused on corruption and discrimination within federal law enforcement agencies.
- The Fund for Authentic Journalism