House lawmakers accused Customs and Border Protection employees who exploited the agency’s overtime pay system of stealing from the American people and called for quicker punitive action, during a combative hearing Wednesday.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security, praised the whistleblowers who brought the abuse to light, but eviscerated the employees who took advantage of the system. An October Office of Special Counsel report found abuses at six U.S. Border Patrol offices at a cost of $9 million annually.
“We’re not talking about people who are actually on the border. We’re talking about desk jockeys at headquarters,” Chaffetz said, adding the employees “milk the system and steal from Americans.”
Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle grew frustrated with witnesses from the Homeland Security Department, who repeatedly responded to questions by saying the issues were under review.
“Don’t tell me there are months we need to review this,” Chaffetz said. “There are people who need to be fired, there are dollars that need to be clawed back, there are people who may be in violation of the law who should be going to jail.”
Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., the committee’s ranking member, attempted to strike a more amiable tone with Catherine Emerson, the chief human capital officer at DHS, but his aggravation escalated too, when Emerson stonewalled his inquiries into what constitutes an abuse of administratively uncontrollable overtime.
“Forget it,” Tierney said. “I was trying to help you and [you are] beyond help. Disturbingly so.”
Lawmakers and witnesses acknowledged that for every Border Patrol employee who exploited the system, many more worked diligently and only took overtime they earned.
“There are too many thousands of people who are working hard, who are doing the right thing,” Chaffetz said. “And guess what? They’re getting screwed.”
In an effort to alleviate the problem, Chaffetz has proposed an overhaul to the pay system for Border Patrol agents. The bill would eliminate administratively uncontrollable overtime and attempt to standardize pay for the officers. Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, fully endorsed the proposal and expressed disbelief when some Democrats voiced their hesitation with the measure.
“Frankly, I’m asking you for a pay cut,” Judd said, adding the bill would save taxpayers $1 billion over 10 years. “We’ll fix the problem management created.”
Chaffetz’s bill has bipartisan support with four Democratic cosponsors, as well as a Democratic partner in Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who introduced the measure in the upper chamber.
DHS management took further heat from John Florence, a CBP branch chief and one of the whistleblowers upon which OSC based its report. Florence told the panel he first approached his supervisor about the misuse, but was told taking any further action was “a waste of government money” and time.
He added that despite the toll blowing the whistle had on his physical health and job security, he would do it all again.
“It was my duty to do so,” Florence said.