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Justice Dept. Immigration Officials Faulted for Nepotism

Watchdog says practice of hiring relatives was “widespread.”

Two immigration administrators and a judge at the Justice Department contributed to improper hiring practices by pressing subordinates to give their relatives paid positions and internships, according to an inspector general report released Thursday.

A violation of the federal ban on nepotism was confirmed following a probe of the hiring of “four students who were relatives of the three most senior officials in the organization – [Executive Office for Immigration Review] Director Juan Osuna, Chairman of the Board of Immigration Appeals David Neal and Chief Immigration Judge Brian O’Leary,” said the report from Justice inspector general Michael Horowitz. “We also found that the practice of hiring relatives of employees into Student Temporary Employment Program positions in EOIR generally was widespread, constituting 16 percent of hires into the program from 2007 through 2012.”

In the case of acting appeals board chairman Juan Osuna, he is said to have conveyed his niece’s interest in a paid student position at EOIR to a direct subordinate, passed along his niece’s resume to that subordinate, and then more likely than not participated in the decision to place his niece in a position at EOIR that put her below him in the chain of command, the report found. “In January 2009, Osuna took steps to secure his niece’s return to EOIR.  We concluded that this involvement violated several statutes and regulations, including the federal nepotism statute and the Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch.”

Previous acting appeals board chairman David Neal is said to have conveyed his son’s qualifications for a summer internship to an EOIR employee.  “In 2007, Neal, then Chief Immigration Judge, approached other EOIR employees about his daughter’s interest in internship positions at EOIR, and conveyed his daughter’s resume to an EOIR employee.” Though investigators did not find sufficient evidence on whether Neal advocated for his daughter, “we found Neal exercised poor judgment with regard to his daughter’s appointment because he should have known, given his status as a senior official in EOIR, that arranging to send her resume to subordinates would inevitably create pressure on them to take action on her behalf.”

The IG found that Judge Brian O’Leary intervened in the hiring process in 2009 in an effort to ensure his daughter would be selected for an internship in one unit of EOIR rather than another.  “We found that O’Leary’s involvement violated the Standards of Ethical Conduct, which prohibit an employee from using his public office for the private gain of relatives,” the IG wrote.

The IG is referring the redacted report to the Office of the Deputy Attorney General for appropriate disciplinary action.

The report noted that the investigation was triggered after the immigration review office itself proposed it, and that anti-nepotism steps have since been taken in the office. “While these steps are commendable,” the watchdog said, the IG “recommends that EOIR take additional action to modify its training to focus not only on the need to avoid improper advocacy, but also to emphasize the broader provisions of the Merit Systems Principles and Prohibited Personnel Practices that prohibit the granting of unauthorized preferences to relatives.”

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