WASHINGTON — The Department of Homeland Security announced on Thursday that it would overhaul the disciplinary process for its employees after The New York Times reported that the agency’s inspector general removed damaging findings from investigative reports about domestic violence and sexual misconduct committed by employees.
“The deeply concerning reports this spring underscored the need for urgent action,” Alejandro N. Mayorkas, the homeland security secretary, said in a statement that quoted the Times article, adding that the changes would include “centralizing the decision-making process for disciplinary actions” so that “allegations of serious misconduct are handled by a dedicated group of well-trained individuals, who are not the employees’ immediate supervisors.”
Mr. Mayorkas announced a review of the department’s disciplinary process in April, after The Times published its article; it was based on internal documents first obtained by the Project on Government Oversight, an independent watchdog group in Washington.
One internal D.H.S. investigation found that more than 10,000 employees of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Secret Service and the Transportation Security Administration had experienced sexual harassment or sexual misconduct at work — more than one-third of those surveyed, according to a draft report.
The draft also described a pattern wherein the agencies used cash payments, with payouts as high as $255,000, to settle sexual harassment complaints without investigating or disciplining the perpetrators.
But top aides to the department’s inspector general, Joseph V. Cuffari, said in written comments that the findings detailing sexual misconduct should be removed because they were “inflammatory” or were “questioning the disciplinary outcome in these cases.”
Mr. Cuffari also directed his staff to remove parts of another draft report on domestic violence committed by officers in the department’s law enforcement agencies because it was “second-guessing D.H.S. disciplinary decisions without full facts.”
The announced reforms underscore a deepening rift between the Homeland Security Department and its inspector general. While Mr. Mayorkas has taken steps to address the allegations in the reports, Mr. Cuffari and other senior officials in the inspector general’s office have instead either downplayed the significance of the findings or fiercely defended their removal.
The inspector general’s office “agrees with Secretary Mayorkas that D.H.S. should be a professional environment free of sexual harassment and other misconduct,” a statement from Mr. Cuffari’s office said. “We also support the secretary’s commitment to promote accountability. We look forward to reviewing the significant reforms the secretary directed the department to implement, and we will continue to do our part to oversee these matters in the department.”
Inspectors general are independent, internal watchdogs for federal agencies, and Homeland Security officials have said that they were previously unaware of the reports’ omitted findings.
In a letter sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee last month, Mr. Cuffari described an agency that had been paralyzed by dysfunction, blaming senior officials in his office who oversaw the investigations by name for deliberately withholding information from him — as well as criticizing the “intransigence” of the inspectors who drafted the reports.
Mr. Cuffari said in the letter that he may never release the report on sexual misconduct — which has remained unpublished since a nearly-complete draft was circulated in December 2020 — because its findings are now too old.
“The report has been plagued by problems from the outset,” Mr. Cuffari wrote, adding that “these problems caused serious delays, and as a result, the information in the most recent draft report does not satisfy the ‘currency’ criterion found in section 2 of the Inspector General Act.”
Instead, Mr. Cuffari said his office would start another investigation of sexual misconduct that would include a new survey of D.H.S. employees. He has also offered to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the two investigations of domestic violence and sexual misconduct. The congressional committees investigating Mr. Cuffari have not publicly responded to that offer.
Gordon S. Heddell, an inspector general for the Department of Defense under President Barack Obama and for the Department of Labor under President George W. Bush, criticized Mr. Cuffari for publicly blaming his subordinates, adding that an inspector general should take responsibility and address problems without undermining his subordinates.
“I would never have written this,” said Mr. Heddell, who now works as a private consultant. “To me, what he’s saying is, ‘I’m leading a very dysfunctional office.’”