Agency Says DHS Employees Routinely Report Overtime When Actually ‘Relaxing, Joking and Surfing the Internet’

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Employees at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security have been bilking taxpayers for millions in overtime pay for years, according to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which investigates cases of government waste and ethical violations. Overtime abuse has become so endemic that agency employees refer to overtime as “the candy bowl.”  On Nov. 1, the office’s Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner sent a letter to President Obama expressing deep concerns about the “long-standing abuse of overtime payments by the Department of Homeland Security.”

In her letter, Lerner said the problem is the misuse of Administratively Uncontrollable Overtime, or AUO, which agents can earn when tackling urgent work like a breaking law enforcement case. Among the allegations made by agency whistleblowers were that employees routinely reported working overtime when in fact they were “relaxing, joking, surfing the Internet and taking care of personal matters.”

The news was a blow to border business leaders and elected officials who were recently granted a five-year pilot program by Congress to allow them to form public-private partnerships to pay for additional agents or pay overtime during peak traffic times at international bridges.

For years border officials have begged the feds to hire more customs agents to relieve congestion at the international bridges. The long lines result in export and import delays causing produce to rot in transit, and pollution from idling trucks and cars. After nearly a decade of frustration for business leaders, Congress approved the public-private partnerships to help fund more agents in U.S. Customs and Border Protection, an agency within DHS.

“I’d be very supportive of CBP correcting this inappropriate behavior,” said Sam Vale, president of the Starr-Camargo Bridge Company. Vale’s company is part of the South Texas Assets Consortium, which includes Cameron County and the cities of McAllen, Pharr and Laredo. The group is one of five public-private partnerships recently approved by Congress for the pilot program that begins in January.

Vale said he is concerned about the report’s findings of rampant abuse of overtime pay. He emphasized that the consortium wouldn’t pay overtime until U.S. Customs had exhausted its overtime coffers first. “If a truck stays one day longer waiting at the port of entry, the value of produce is reduced by 10 percent. The importer and exporter have to eat the difference in cost,” he said. “It’s a business decision—do you pay the overtime and allow the truck to be cleared faster or not?” he said. “Most would pay the overtime.”

Lerner’s agency investigated six Homeland Security offices nationwide including the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services headquarters in Washington, D.C., where a  “whistleblower alleged that employees claimed 10 hours of overtime every week,” an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Houston, and a Border Patrol station in Laredo where employees charged overtime to conduct routine administrative tasks.

The overtime charges at the six offices alone cost taxpayers at least $8.7 million annually. Lerner said the misuse of funds was an agency-wide problem and probably “would be in the tens of millions per year.”

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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. She has a master’s in public health from Texas A&M University and a master’s in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin.