Secret vetting at Customs

Earlier this week, I received a letter -- sent anonymously. It was stuffed with documents, including a memo written by Colleen Kelley, the president of the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU). The union represents some 13,000 Customs employees who work for the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) -- which is under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  

The NTEU, which has endorsed Sen. John F. Kerry for president, is currently battling the Bush administration and DHS over proposed workplace rule changes that will severely limit the union's ability to represent workers within the new super department.  

The leaked Kelley memo, which is directed to NTEU chapter presidents, also deals with a workplace-rights issue. The memo, dated Nov. 14, 2003, is the real thing. A spokesman for the union confirmed that fact.  

The memo reveals something quite startling in terms of how the government operates with respect to promoting the right people to the right jobs. Essentially, the memo indicates that since December 1998 Customs has maintained a "secret vetting" policy that requires that background checks be run at the headquarters level on employees who are up for promotion.  

So why is this a big deal?  

One Customs inspector interviewed put it this way: "There's a secret vetting list that the agency has. What that means is they have opened a file on your name, to be used for anything."  

  Ron Schmidt of the law firm of Garvey Schubert Barer says if this secret vetting (or review) process is conducted according to fair, well-defined principles, there probably is nothing inherently wrong with it.  

But if that is how the vetting policy is being carried out, why is it a "secret" process?  

Unfortunately, Schmidt contends, given Customs track record of reprisal against whistleblowers and discrimination against minorities, it is likely the "secret" process has been abused, that it has been used by management officials to scuttle the promotions of individuals they don't like.  

This is a major point for Schmidt, because he is the attorney representing a group of Hispanic Customs special agents who have filed a class-action lawsuit against the agency. The litigation accuses Customs, which is now part of DHS, of engaging in a pattern of discrimination against Hispanic agents that dates back to the 1970s. As an example of the discriminatory tactics employed, some agents contend Customs management has even initiated bogus Internal Affairs investigations to thwart promotions of individuals who are deemed to be outside the "good 'ol boy" network.  

"We are aware of the secret vetting process, and allege it exists in our lawsuit, that Customs has employed it and that it has a discriminatory impact on whistleblowers and Hispanics," Schmidt says.

Customs, for its part, contends that it is proud of its diverse workforce and argues that the Hispanic agents' lawsuit is without merit and not supported by statistical evidence.  

However, the fact that a memo has surfaced revealing the existence of this "secret vetting" process is the big deal. Even though Schmidt says the Hispanic agents he represents know the secret process exists, to date documents revealing its existence have not been produced by Customs in the class-action case.  

Now the cat is out of the bag.  

What does all this mean to us, the people? Well, it's yet another indication that the federal agencies charged with prosecuting the war on drugs -- and the so-called war on terror -- are in a state of serious dysfunction. You have to ask yourself: how can any law enforcement agency act in the public interest, let alone the interest of justice, if its management tolerates -- and actually adopts – internal policies that promote retaliation, discrimination and cronyism.  

Customs doesn't see it that way. This secret vetting process surely helps to assure that only the best people get put in the right positions. To assume the process is being abused is cynical management bashing, more union politics.  

Maybe so; maybe not. You decide after reading the memo.  

You may also want to check out this letter addressed to NTEU's Jonathan Levine. It was included in the envelope with the Kelley memo and was signed by more than a dozen Customs employees.  

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