Aiming to Enforce Change at Customs!

Aiming to Enforce Change at Customs!
Posted by FoM on February 17, 1999 at 07:09:09 PT
Shake-Up Underway; Scrutiny Looms!
The U.S. Customs Service, confronting allegations of mismanagement and facing a potential bruising in the Senate, appears headed for a year-long shake-up.
Customs Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly intends to push "fundamental change" at the law enforcement agency and has produced a 78-page "action plan" to tighten up discipline, ensure integrity and provide new strategies for cracking down on drug smugglers."We are going to hold people strictly accountable for their actions in managing or failure to manage. This has been a concept that has gotten away from this organization," Kelly said in an interview.Kelly, previously Treasury undersecretary for enforcement, took charge of Customs in August after Treasury Department officials determined that the agency needed an overhaul.The new commissioner appears to have started his shake-up just in time. The Senate Finance Committee, which held blockbuster hearings on taxpayer abuses by the Internal Revenue Service in 1997 and 1998, has started an investigation of Customs, leading to fears among agency officials that the nation's oldest law enforcement agency may be in for a similar battering later this year.Meanwhile, the Treasury Department inspector general has started a series of probes into allegations of misconduct by Customs employees, sources said.Customs operates across the globe, enforcing hundreds of laws and international agreements. It collects about $23 billion annually in levies on imports, but also must protect U.S. ports of entry against the smuggling of narcotics and other contraband.In recent weeks, Kelly, a Marine combat veteran of Vietnam and a former New York City police commissioner, has shocked insiders by reassigning senior staff to punctuate his campaign for change.The head of the agency's Internal Affairs Office, which investigates allegations of corruption made against Customs employees, has been transferred and was replaced yesterday by William A. Keefer, a federal prosecutor who pursued organized crime suspects in Florida. The head of field operations also has been moved and other staff changes seem likely.Kelly's action plan identifies 31 major problem areas to be addressed and calls for solutions to a number of problems by next year. The areas under scrutiny include:* Accountability. A 1995 reorganization of the Customs Service, heralded at the time as an example of how Vice President Gore's "reinventing government" effort could bring about streamlined management, has left too many "murky jobs" in the field and hindered top-level oversight of field operations, Kelly said.The reorganization abolished the jobs of 40 district directors and 7 regional commissioners and replaced them with 20 Customs Management Centers. As a result, Kelly contends, day-to-day oversight of the agency's operations at 301 ports has suffered.Kelly's plan calls for clearly identifying the duties of Management Center directors and port directors, with the centers assuming more responsibility for port operations. "We want people to know what they are responsible for. That has not always been the case," Kelly said.* Discipline. Kelly has set up seven teams to look at disciplinary issues, including how Internal Affairs investigates and resolves complaints. Kelly also wants to ensure that discipline is handed out on a consistent basis.As part of Kelly's effort to improve discipline, sources said, he has placed 10 agents in El Paso on notice they may be fired after they failed to ensure that marijuana was properly destroyed at an Arizona burn site. Also, three top managers in South Florida were recently transferred after the Miami Herald reported allegations that agents dated drug smugglers, wrecked an agency car after drinking, tampered with evidence and sexually harassed colleagues.* Organizational structure. Customs has hired a consulting firm to rethink the agency's management and examine budget and staff resources, the first time an entire federal agency has undergone what Kelly calls a "clean sheet of paper" study.Customs programs and offices will undergo management inspections every 18 to 24 months, Kelly said, noting that auditors now show up every four to six years.* Passenger processing. Customs conducts personal searches of some airline passengers entering this country, ranging from a simple frisk to a strip-search, to detect illegal drugs. But the searches are not proving as successful as in past years. Fiscal 1998 data show that of the 2,076 passengers who had to take off part of their clothing for a Customs inspection, only 21 percent were found to be carrying illegal drugs."This is a public relations nightmare for Customs," Kelly said. "Just imagine if your wife or your daughter was subjected to this."Ten to 15 years ago, Kelly said, these personal searches recorded positive hit rates approaching 100 percent. But drug cartels have grown more sophisticated, schooling their "mules" on how to dress and act. And the smugglers swallow cocaine-filled balloons and condoms or insert packages of cocaine and heroin into their body cavities, forcing Customs agents to take targeted passengers to hospitals and clinics for body searches, officials said.Those tactics have raised controversy, however. A New York woman, traveling alone from Hong Kong, was detained at San Francisco International Airport for 22 hours, strip-searched and forced to take laxatives by Customs agents. But the September 1994 detention turned up no drugs, and last year a federal jury found the search unreasonable, awarding the woman $450,000 in damages.Practices at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago also have drawn scrutiny. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and then-Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun (D-Ill.) requested a General Accounting Office investigation into search procedures after constituent complaints and Chicago television reports of allegedly abusive actions. The TV reports raised questions about whether black women returning from trips abroad in the last two years unduly became targets for strip-searches by Custom agents.Given the complaints and the falloff in successful searches, Kelly said, Customs has brought in a consultant and started an intensive review of its search policies. In general, he said, agents target "high-risk flights from high-risk nations," rely on intelligence reports and use "spotters" in civilian clothing who mingle with passengers as they wait to clear Customs at airports.Kelly said Customs hopes to find nonintrusive ways to detect illegal drugs, such as devices that smell latex on a person's breath. Customs also has started giving New York and Miami airline passengers the option of submitting to "body scanners," which see through clothing, and low-radiation X-rays."Clearly, we were much more successful percentage-wise in the '80s than we are now. So the issue is, 'Why?' " Kelly said. "We are searching for an answer, but we know this function has to continue.
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