Customs chief's credibility remains in question

Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., Thursday said he remains concerned that Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Alan Bersin failed to properly file employment forms for his household workers, even though he took full responsibility for the mistake and said there was no intent to deceive Congress.

Bersin, who was given a recess appointment by President Obama in March, appeared at a committee hearing Thursday morning and offered a detailed explanation concerning the tax and employment records for workers he employed.

In vetting the nomination, the committee found that Bersin hired 10 employees since 1993 but did not "completely and timely prepare and maintain" I-9 forms for any of them as required by the law.

Even though Bersin was given a recess appointment, the panel held a confirmation hearing for him Thursday as he will need to be confirmed by the Senate by the end of next year's session of Congress in order to stay in the position.

"I find it incredible that you didn't know about the I-9 obligation. That just doesn't pass the credibility test," Baucus said at the start of the hearing.

After a long exchange with Bersin, Baucus said at the end of the hearing he still remained concerned, adding that the failure to complete I-9 forms "goes to the heart" of the duties that Bersin has as commissioner of CBP, the federal agency responsible for ensuring that people are legally authorized to work in the country.

"To credibly enforce the law you first must follow the law," Baucus said.

Bersin told the panel he was not aware that he needed to file an I-9 form for domestic employees. He said he verified the work eligibility of all his employees, kept photocopies of verification records and paid all taxes for the workers.

"I believe the substance of the immigration law was observed," he said. Bersin added he has spent 20 years in public service and prides himself on his reputation for truthfulness and candor.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M, said it was clear Bersin complied with the spirit of the law and paid all taxes. He said the fact that Bersin failed to file proper employment forms was unfortunate but "not fatal."

But Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., questioned why Bersin accepted a recess appointment knowing that the Finance Committee had questions about his household workers.

"I was asked whether or not I would accept the appointment if made and I said yes," Bersin said.

Baucus also questioned whether Bersin has adequate knowledge of trade and commerce issues. "The question I have basically is your dedication to commerce. It's clear you have a deep background with respect to security issues," Baucus said.

Bersin listed his goals to improve CBP's commerce operations, including addressing industry concerns about the amount of time customs inspections take and providing adequate notice of proposed rule changes.

Baucus asked Bersin to give the committee by the end of the week the six top commerce goals he believes are most important to achieve and timelines for achieving them.

CORRECTION: The story should have said President Obama's recess appointment for Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Alan Bersin will expire at the end of next year's session of Congress.

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