WASHINGTON -- A U.S. Customs agent on a non-emergency assignment crashed his government car into a tractor trailer he was trying to pass while speeding at least 20 miles per hour above the limit on a dusty, dirt road. The collision killed his partner.
The agent behind the wheel had "a documented history of reckless and aggressive driving" but returned to work initially with no punishment, and an official Customs Service investigation concluded he wasn't at fault.
Later, officials hurriedly gave him a letter of reprimand that foreclosed further discipline after investigators began to question the original account of the accident, interviews and documents show.
The 1998 crash in the Arizona desert has revived concerns that the agency that protects America's borders remains unable to discipline its own, even as complaints of wrongdoing by Customs employees increased by 200 percent in the late 1990s.
"I want to make sure there's finally some responsibility, some accountability," says Customs agent Dorene Kulpa-Friedli, whose husband, Gary Friedli, was killed in the crash near Douglas, Ariz. "There's no such thing as closure."
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said he intends to use the Arizona accident to re-examine whether Customs has made enough progress on discipline.
"I plan to look into this case and into the broader questions it raises ... whether Customs agents are adequately investigated for allegations of wrongdoing in the course of duty and whether they're adequately disciplined when wrongdoing is substantiated," Grassley said.
The Customs Service has long been the subject of allegations of cronyism and lax discipline among its 19,000 employees.
A 1999 Treasury Department review of nearly 400 disciplinary cases inside Customs in the previous two years concluded that many were bungled so that wayward agents were neither disciplined nor prosecuted.
Several agents under investigation for serious wrongdoing were given awards, in violation of agency policy, the inquiry found.
Former New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly vowed to strengthen discipline and accountability when he took over the service three years ago. And he made sweeping changes to its internal affairs unit.
But Kelley acknowledged in an interview with The Associated Press that the problems weren't solved before he stepped down in January.
"It's not easy to change a culture when you're a political appointee," Kelly said. "We made significant progress ... but it's an ongoing concern that has to be monitored from the highest levels."
The 1999 investigative report quoted one federal prosecutor as saying Customs was "dysfunctional and almost unwilling to enforce criminal laws" broken by its own workers. The report cited numerous examples of mishandled inquiries:
--A case was not thoroughly pursued and subsequently closed, even after law enforcement sources provided information that a Customs employee was involved with individuals suspected of money laundering, gun running and armored car robberies.
--An inspector who admitted placing marijuana in a passenger's luggage was only admonished by a supervisor, and over the next four years, received seven cash awards and one promotion.
--A supervisor was placed in charge of an investigation of one of his employees who left the scene of an accident involving a government vehicle -- even though both had been drinking together before the accident.
--Prosecutors were never told about a Customs employee involved in smuggling of immigrants, and no criminal charges were filed.
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