MCALLEN, Texas (AP) As concerns were running high about corruption within the swelling ranks of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the chief of a South Texas federal office responsible for investigating those cases was pushing a scheme of its own, according to an indictment released Wednesday.
The McAllen office of the Department of Homeland Security's Office of the Inspector General was run from 2009 to 2011 by Special Agent-in-Charge Eugenio Pedraza. Federal prosecutors say that in advance of an internal audit of the office's operations, Pedraza launched his staff on a mission to prepare documents that falsely indicated investigative activity had taken place.
Pedraza, 49, is now facing charges of conspiracy, falsifying records, obstructing agency proceedings and obstruction of justice. The indictment also charges one of his agents, Marco Rodriguez, 40, who allegedly falsified records at Pedraza's instruction.
Both pleaded not guilty during initial court appearances Wednesday in Brownsville. Bonds were set at $50,000 each.
Pedraza's attorney did not immediately return a call for comment. It was not known if Rodriguez had retained a lawyer and there was no listed phone number for him. Both had been on administrative leave but were placed on unpaid suspension following the indictment, according to the inspector general's office.
The indictment follows the guilty plea in January of another agent in the office who Pedraza allegedly told to falsify records.
The FBI began investigating in late 2011, and a grand jury in Washington began its own inquiry in early 2012. Investigators allege that in January and February 2012, Pedraza tried to have falsified documents pulled from the office's files in an attempt to obstruct the investigations.
The McAllen office, just a few miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, included Pedraza, an assistant special agent-in-charge and about 13 agents who investigated allegations of corruption in the various arms of the Department of Homeland Security, including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection.
The indictment describes an office in disarray. It lists seven cases that the McAllen office had opened in 2009 and 2010 into allegations that Customs officers and Border Patrol agents were making money helping immigrants and drugs to enter the country illegally.
Pedraza failed to adequately supervise and train his staff, the indictment alleges. And once he realized how far behind cases were, he instructed agents, administrative staff and even an intern to prepare false documents, including backdated letters and case review worksheets to put in the files before auditors arrived.
One of the most egregious allegations, according to the indictment, involved Pedraza and another agent in the McAllen office whose name has not been released.
A Mexican citizen who had been permitted to stay in the U.S. as long as he or she was helping the office with investigations was assisting this particular agent in a case about a Customs officer who was allowing immigrants to enter illegally. After the source's role in the case ended, the agent sent the source to the DHS Office of the Inspector General in Dallas to help with investigations there. When the source arrived in Dallas, the source told agents about misconduct by the agent in McAllen. The Dallas office forwarded the allegations to headquarters in Washington.
But word of the allegations leaked to Pedraza, and before headquarters could initiate an investigation, Pedraza instructed his agent to "deactivate" the confidential source and have the source deported to Mexico. The source was returned to Mexico, and according to the indictment, Pedraza instructed that the paperwork for that action be falsified as well.
Customs and Border Protection, primarily through the hiring of Border Patrol agents, had grown tremendously in the preceding years. Currently, there are about 18,500 Border Patrol agents on the Southwest border, whereas 20 years earlier there were fewer than 4,000.
Some agency officials expressed concerns that the push to hire more agents had allowed people with questionable motives into the service, putting added pressure on agencies like the Office of the Inspector General that are charged with rooting out abuse and corruption. During one six-month period in 2011, the DHS Office of the Inspector General initiated 715 investigations, according to the indictment.
In 2010, the head of Customs and Border Protection's own internal affairs office, which carries out similar investigations, told a congressional subcommittee: "Transnational criminal organizations are doing all they can to infiltrate CBP through our hiring initiatives."