Accounting problems bedevil Homeland Security agency, lawmaker says

Rampant accounting problems at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau risk violating federal spending laws and are having an impact on operations, Rep. Jim Turner, D-Texas, said Tuesday.

In a letter to Clark Kent Ervin, the Homeland Security Department's inspector general, Turner said accounting woes have left ICE pilots in the dark on when they would receive new aircraft parts, have caused repeated shutdowns of its travel system, and forced the agency to borrow funds from other Homeland Security agencies to "avoid budget shortfalls."

Turner said ICE may be in danger of violating the Anti-Deficiency Act, which prevents agencies from spending funds in excess of a given appropriation. He asked Ervin to investigate ICE's budget practices.

Dean Boyd, an ICE spokesman, denied Turner's claims. "We strongly reject the suggestion that ICE has violated the Anti-Deficiency Act," he said. Boyd added that there appeared to be "some inaccuracies" in Turner's letter, which he declined to describe.

Turner faulted ICE's financial system, known as the Federal Financial Management System, for many of the problems. The system, a holdover from the defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service, one of ICE's predecessor agencies, is poorly equipped to pay vendors and consolidate financial information, he wrote.

"Staff need to run multiple reports and combine information manually to get a full picture of how much to spend," he wrote.

Turner based his claims on interviews his staff conducted with ICE employees in the agency's Washington headquarters, and in three field offices. "These conversations revealed a severe lack of confidence that the FFMS is providing decision-makers with accurate, useful, and timely information," wrote Turner.

Most of these employees came from the old Customs Service, which used a different financial system, according to Moira Whelan, minority spokeswoman for the House Homeland Security Committee. Some Customs veterans believe their old system, known as the Asset Information Management System, is technically superior to the INS application now used by ICE.

"You could see in 10 seconds exactly what [funds] you had and what had been spent, or obligated," said one veteran Customs employee. "Each office knew exactly, and headquarters knew exactly, and [the] Indianapolis Finance Center knew exactly."

In his letter, Turner questioned why ICE had chosen to use the INS system, noting the General Accounting Office had flagged problems with the system before. "It is puzzling to me that the department would choose to stay with a system that was so widely recognized as inherently flawed," he wrote.

Boyd, the ICE spokesman, said the agency picked the INS system after a detailed review.

"There was a decision to use FFMS after a careful review of the available systems that are out there," he said. "FFMS was ranked pretty highly among the small number of financial management systems that are certified for use by government agencies."

In March, the INS system was certified by the Joint Financial Management Improvement Program, according Jeff Littlehale, a spokesman with Savantage Solutions Inc., a Rockville, Md.-based company that manufacturers the system. An endorsement from JFMIP--a small agency charged with improving financial management throughout government--is the "Good Housekeeping seal of approval" in the federal accounting world, Littlehale said.

He added that Savantage is helping train ICE personnel, including workers from the Customs Service, on how to use the INS system. "People are creatures of habit," he said. "It's amazing how sensitive people are to what they're used to."

Besides housing veteran INS and Customs personnel, ICE also contains the Federal Air Marshals and Federal Protective Service, a unit it inherited from the General Services Administration.

Turner hopes the Inspector General will study whether the financial system played a role in a $1.2 billion budget shortfall that prompted a hiring freeze at ICE and other Homeland Security agencies earlier this year. "This system seems to be omnipresent in these problems, but it was not mentioned as one of the potential causes for losing all this money," said Whelan.

Tamara Faulkner, a media liaison for the Inspector General, said Ervin's office was reviewing Turner's letter and was already looking into "certain aspects" of the issues he raised.

Boyd said ICE is crafting a response to Turner's letter as well.

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