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DHS launches review of overtime abuse

Nov. 1, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
By SEAN REILLY   |   Comments
Carolyn N. Lerner
The Department of Homeland Security is conducting a review of overtime use by its employees. Carolyn Lerner, director of the Office of Special Counsel, said employees have been adding two hours of 'administratively uncontrollable overtime' (AUO) without performing that work. (Colin Kelly/Staff)

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The Homeland Security Department is conducting a sweeping review of overtime use by its employees amid allegations of widespread abuses that cost taxpayers millions of dollars annually.

The review comes in response to charges by a government watchdog agency that Customs and Border Protection headquarters employees have been regularly tacking on two hours of “administratively uncontrollable overtime” (AUO) every day and not performing work during that time. AUO is supposed to be used by field agents who work unpredictable and irregular hours.

Rather than working during those periods, staff in the CBP Commissioner’s Situation Room often spend the additional time watching television sports and entertainment channels or stay at their duty stations “relaxing, joking, surfing the Internet and taking care of personal matters,” said Carolyn Lerner, director of the Office of Special Counsel, in a letter to President Obama and Congress. In her letter, Lerner cited allegations brought by Jose Ducos-Bello, a CBP employee there. The letter is posted on the special counsel’s website.

Acting DHS Secretary Rand Beers ordered the general counsel’s office to “expeditiously” review how department employees use AUO and whether they are complying with department rules and laws, said spokesman Peter Boogaard.

Boogaard added that front-line officers and agents need the work hour flexibility provided by AUO, but “misuse of these funds is not tolerated.”

Lerner said she has referred five other whistleblower complaints of overtime abuse at CBP and other Homeland Security organizations to the department for investigation. That is “a strong indication that DHS has a profound and entrenched problem,” she said. Based on information provided by those whistle-blowers, the added cost to taxpayers in those half-dozen offices is about $8.7 million annually, Lerner added. “It is incumbent upon DHS to take effective steps to curb the abuse.”

An internal CBP investigation substantiated Ducos-Bello’s charges that numerous situation room employees — abetted by the room’s director and assistant director — abused overtime. The situation room, which has a staff of about 32, serves as a crisis center and communications hub for CBP. A CBP representative referred questions to DHS.

Lerner noted that, in 2008, another CBP internal inquiry confirmed similar allegations of overtime abuse by employees in Washington state. At the time, CBP officials said they were working to create a uniform policy that would be implemented after bargaining with the two unions that represent agency employees.

The lack of progress since then “raises questions about the agency’s willingness or ability to confront this important problem,” Lerner said. Boogaard did not respond to a further request for comment.

For CBP field agents, AUO makes up a significant share of their paychecks. At the Border Patrol, for example, AUO currently adds 20 percent to officers’ base pay and is needed for them to do their jobs, said Shawn Moran, a vice president with the National Border Patrol Council, a union that is part of the American Federation of Government Employees. “We’re afraid of being painted with the same brush as the people who are accused of abusing it,” Moran said. In 2012, the Border Patrol spent more than $1.4 billion on overtime, according an Associated Press analysis.

According to Lerner, the other five DHS offices where whistle-blowers have alleged AUO abuse are:

■CBP Office of Training and Development, Glynco, Ga.

■U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Office of Security and Integrity, Washington, D.C.

■Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility, Houston

■CBP Asset Forfeiture Office, San Ysidro, Calif.

■CBP facility, Laredo, Texas.

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