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A Flood of Allegations Against Agency in Charge of Rio Grande

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Spying on employees, altering federal documents, giving yourself (or a friend) a pay raise…Just another day at the office at the International Boundary and Water Commission, according to its former general counsel.

Investigators from the Inspector General of the State Department are in El Paso right now investigating these serious allegations made by whistleblower Robert McCarthy. The lawyer was fired by the IBWC’s commissioner in July after reporting the misconduct to the State Department, which loosely oversees the agency.

Not many people are familiar with the IBWC, but they are a key federal agency along the border. Created in 1889, the IBWC carries out border treaties with Mexico and operates several international dams and water treatment plants and (supposedly) keeps levees along the Rio Grande from crumbling into dust.

If the USIBWC and its Mexican counterpart don’t function properly then it means millions of lives, billions in property and several important levees and dams are at stake on the Rio Grande. We have to only remember the disastrous flooding in Presidio last year and the millions of dollars of damage from flooding in the Mexican city of Nogales.

The (now former) USIBWC General Counsel Robert McCarthy reported to the Inspector General that the agency had violated several federal laws and regulations. Among those allegations are that the agency mismanaged $220 million in Recovery Act money to raise levees along the Rio Grande. 

He also reported that agency officials conducted secret surveillance of agency employees, altered official government records, made false reports to the Inspector General, manipulated payrolls, and misappropriated funds.

IBWC Commissioner C.W. “Bill” Ruth fired McCarthy three days after he made his report to the Inspector General. In 2008 President Bush appointed Ruth commissioner after the tragic death of Commissioner Carlos Marin who died in a plane crash while surveying the flooding in Presidio.

If even some of McCarthy’s allegations are true then the executive leadership and Commissioner Ruth should be replaced.

The IBWC is tucked away in a musty, dusty corner of the State Department. It has little oversight other than “foreign policy guidance’ from the State Department. The Commissioner is even allowed to set his own salary. Wouldn’t we all like to have that option?

This is not the first time the IBWC has been investigated by the State Department IG for complaints of mismanagement. In 2006, the IG wrote:

“The agency is simply too small, too isolated, and too vulnerable to management abuse to continue without the protection and oversight of a major government department.”

 The IBWC is far too important to border residents to be treated like a government orphan. Hopefully, the Obama Administration will clean up the mess and put the IBWC under the oversight of a larger agency.

The nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility is assisting McCarthy with his whistleblower case against the agency. Jeff Ruch, executive director of the nonprofit, said that this is not McCarthy’s first time crying foul on a federal agency. In 2007, he was a whistleblower at the Bureau of Indian Affairs in California where he helped manage accounts for Native American landowners in the Palm Springs area. McCarthy was a key witness against the federal government in a multi-billion dollar class action lawsuit that claimed among other things that Native American leases were mismanaged and landowners were charged exorbitant fees by the federal agency.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. Melissa is a 2014-15 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.