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Controversial Halloween party photos released

  • Story Highlights
  • Partygoer used make-up to darken skin, went as escaped prisoner
  • Acting Immigration chief judged costume contest
  • Congress told photos destroyed before Julie Myers' confirmation hearings
  • CNN got photos through Freedom of Information Act request
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From Jeanne Meserve and Mike M. Ahlers
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The federal government has released to CNN more than 100 photographs of a Halloween party that temporarily threatened to derail the nomination of a top Department of Homeland Security official.

ICE chief Julie Myers poses with a costume contest winner at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement party.

The images included several digital photos that the official had ordered erased because they were deemed to be inappropriate and offensive.

At the party, Julie Myers, then-acting chief of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), part of the Department of Homeland Security, gave an award for "most original costume" to an employee wearing prison stripes, a wig with dreadlocks and face-darkening makeup.

Immediately after posing for a photo with the winner, Myers later told Congress, she recognized that she made an error in judgment and ordered the photos deleted from the camera.

Myers said she did not know the employee was wearing skin makeup, but ordered the photos destroyed because she did not think that "recognizing an escaped prisoner in any way was beneficial to the agency's goal of treating everyone in our custody with dignity and respect."

This week, in response to the Freedom of Information Act request filed by CNN on November 6, ICE released 113 official photographs of the party, including all of the deleted photos, which technicians were able to electronically restore.

An ICE spokeswoman denied the photos were suppressed until after Myers' job was secure, saying ICE responded in an "efficient time frame" to the FOIA request.

News of the photos' existence infuriated some members of Congress, who said they should have been made aware of them earlier.

"It is too bad that these photos surfaced too late to have dealt with her nomination, perhaps, in a different way," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, who last November put a "hold" on Myers' confirmation because of the hubbub. Video Watch what congressmen think about party photos »

Myers was confirmed on December 20. As an assistant secretary of Homeland Security, she leads ICE, the agency charged with enforcing immigration law in the nation's interior. The agency has more than 15,000 employees, including 6,000 investigators.

McCaskill said she believed the photos would have affected the confirmation.

"This is such brutally bad judgment that, to me, it indicates that the leadership of this division is flawed," she said.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, whose committee oversees ICE, said Wednesday he is upset both by the photos and by ICE's failure to give the photos to Congress in November.

"I was satisfied [with Myers' explanations and apology] until I found out that these pictures existed," Thompson said.

An ICE spokeswoman denied that there was any intentional effort to mislead Congress.

"We had asked that they be destroyed, and as far as we knew, that was the case," spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said. Myers was "frank and honest about every aspect of that situation from the very beginning," she said.

An estimated 50 to 75 employees attended the October 31 costume party at ICE headquarters in the District of Columbia. A poster advertising the contest said costumes should be tasteful and "office appropriate."

Myers declined to talk to CNN Wednesday, but in written comments to Congress last November, she offered the following account of the incident:

She and two other ICE officials served as judges of the costume contest, and she had "very limited interaction" with the employee in the prisoner costume, who "was present at the [judging] table for less than half a minute before he moved on.

"I was not aware at the time of the contest that the employee disguised his skin color," she wrote. Nonetheless, after posing for a photo with the employee, she realized it was inappropriate.

"Although I did not know that this individual had disguised his race, I determined that I had made an error in judgment in recognizing an escaped prisoner at this party," she wrote, and she instructed her chief of staff to direct the official photographer to delete the photos.

In an internal e-mail that was sent at 3:05 p.m., shortly after the party was to end, the ICE public affairs director, Wendy Burrell, said, "Please make sure that the photos of the most creative (single male entry) are destroyed. They may not be used in any publication, Web site, compilation disk, you name it. Not just not used. Please erase all."

Myers said she was "shocked and horrified" to learn the next day that the employee had used skin-darkening makeup.

The employee was counseled, and Myers sent out a note to all agency employees expressing regret over the event, agency spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said in November.

"It is now clear that, however unintended, a few of the costumes were inappropriate and offensive," Myers wrote.


She reminded employees of their responsibility to complete diversity training and said managers should distribute and discuss ICE's diversity policy statement during staff meetings.

The employee who donned the inmate costume was placed on two weeks of administrative leave, counseled by a supervisor and returned to full duty. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

All About U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs EnforcementJulie Myers

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