WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump thinks the situation at the border demands a government shutdown to procure billions of taxpayer dollars to start construction of a southern border wall that he originally said Mexico would pay for. But the ongoing partial government shutdown ― which is leaving some of the nation’s lowest-paid law enforcement officials working without a paycheck ― risks creating a new crisis of corruption within the nation’s prisons, airports and, ironically, at the border.
Federal law enforcement agencies like the Bureau of Prisons, the Transportation Security Administration and U.S. Customs and Border Protection have long struggled with integrity issues, from smuggling contraband into prisons and stealing from luggage to taking bribes at the border. Forcing employees of these law enforcement agencies ― which have also struggled with morale issues ― to work without pay could exacerbate corruption problems, some experts told HuffPost. When unpaid law enforcement employees get desperate, some could become compromised.
“As this thing goes on, and as people’s financial situations become more dire, it always increases the risk for corruption,” says John Roth, the former inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security, which includes TSA and CBP. “It’s ironic that you’re increasing the risk of corruption at the same time as you’re attempting to fortify the border.”
Roth, who retired in late 2017, told HuffPost he was particularly concerned about border patrol agents going without pay because they often work in isolation and their work gives them a tremendous opportunity to engage in corruption.
The screening process for border patrol agents ― who start out with a base salary of around $40,000 ― has become lax as CBP’s employee population exploded. Like a lot of law enforcement organizations, Customs and Border Patrol has an inadequate internal affairs system that a 2016 watchdog report found leaves it “vulnerable to a corruption scandal that could potentially threaten the security of our nation.”
While dozens of CBP employees have been prosecuted for corruption in recent years, experts believe the level of corruption within border patrol isn’t fully recognized. Much of the border patrol corruption involves moving drugs or human trafficking, the type of problems that Trump has highlighted in his rhetoric about the southern border.
The border patrol union, a conservative organization that has boosted Trump and his border wall, is backing Trump and the shutdown. Leaders of the National Border Patrol Council appeared alongside Trump at an unusual event in the White House press room last week, where they offered support for Trump’s standoff with Congress over billions in border wall funding. “We are all affected by this shutdown,” union official Art Del Cueto told the White House press corps. “We have skin in the game.” Union President Brandon Judd said it was “not true” that federal employees don’t agree with the government shutdown. Union officials didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Transportation Security Administration, where officers earn a base salary of $37,000 a year, has also been under scrutiny for employee misconduct. The agency, which struggles with morale issues, has seen several prosecutions in recent years involving drug smuggling and theft of passenger property. Hundreds of TSA employees have called in sick during the shutdown, some in hopes of working other jobs that would actually give them a paycheck.
Federal prisons ― which house nearly 152,000 federal inmates, are another point of vulnerability. The average correctional officer starts out making the mid-$40,000 range, and their paychecks are about to stop in the next few days.
Aaron McGlothin, a local union president for Mendota federal prison in California, said he’s driving for Uber on nights and weekends to make ends meet. Most of his co-workers live paycheck to paycheck, and not being able to afford gas to get to work ― where they’re not getting paid ― is a real threat. That opens the gate to potential corruption, he says.
“You always have those few bad apples that you don’t know, and now you’re getting inmates knowing what’s going on,” he said. “This is an opportunity for them to prey on staff, give you $500 bucks or something and say ‘Get me some cigarettes.’”
“There’s a huge morale hit that happens when something like this happens, and the expectation is that you’re going to be working for weeks at time without a paycheck,” said Roth, the former DHS inspector general.
Rick Heldreth ― the union president for correctional staff at Hazelton, the federal prison in West Virginia beset with safety issues where Whitey Bulger was recently killed ― believes that morale hit is directly impacting his staff’s ability to properly patrol the prison. In the last week, there have been three attacks on staff, with several minor injuries.
Absenteeism plays a major role in those threats, Heldreth says, as the “blue flu” isn’t solely a TSA problem.
On top of the rising absenteeism ― McGlothin estimates his prison is at 20 percent ― and worsening safety issues, the shutdown is distracting correction workers from their normal levels of vigilance, Heldreth argued.
“The staff is distracted wondering if they’ll able to pay their bills, people worry about losing their houses and their cars and afford health care and child care, on top of regular pressures,” he told HuffPost. Heldreth said he was forced to chose not to visit his parents over the Christmas holiday season to save cash.
He also said he’s been worried for the last few weeks about the potential corruption issue. After all, he’s not alone: The government monitors the credit of federal correctional officers to make sure they’re not easily compromised.
“And here it is out for public consumption that we’re all in financial difficulty,” Heldreth added.
One BOP registered nurse, who emailed HuffPost’s tipline and whose husband is also employed by BOP, said that the shutdown had cut off all of their household income. “We have three children, and bills just as everyone else. It is beyond me that my livelihood is held hostage due to someone’s temper tantrums,” the BOP employee said.
McGlothin said that BOP employees’ opinion on the president ― and Congress, who they also blame ― is dropping by the day.
“I voted for Trump ― I don’t support him right now; I don’t support him with this shutdown,” he said. “He’s never turned a fucking wrench in his life, he’s never used a shovel to work hard labor ― he’s always had everything handed to him on a silver platter.”
“The hardworking people of the federal government are working without pay and he’s still eating lobster.”
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