- Whistleblower watchdog says overtime fund abused by $8.7 million annually
- Customs and other Homeland Security offices engaged in "gross waste" of taxpayer funds
- Overtime money routinely given to employees who spent time watching TV
- Official says case not isolated and was raised by Customs employees
The federal agency that protects the nation's borders is doing a shoddy job protecting the nation's wallet, abusing an overtime fund to the tune of $8.7 million annually, according to a government watchdog.
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal agency that receives whistleblower complaints, said offices within Customs and Border Protection and elsewhere within the Department of Homeland Security engage in a "gross waste of government funds."
Overtime money intended for special circumstances was routinely given to employees who frequently spent that time watching sports and entertainment channels, Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner wrote in a letter to the White House.
Employees working in CBP's "Situation Room" received overtime 89 percent of the time, Lerner said.
"This case is not an isolated occurrence. Rather, it is part of a persistent pattern of AUO [Administratively Uncontrollable Overtime] allegations raised by DHS employees," Lerner wrote.
The problem was brought to light, the OSC said, by several CBP employees who were authorized to receive the overtime pay but were troubled by the ethics of the practice and its impact on the federal budget.
The DHS said in a statement that Acting Secretary Rand Beers had requested a "comprehensive, department-wide review of the use of (administrative overtime)."
"DHS takes seriously its responsibility to ensure proper use of taxpayer funds," spokesman Peter Boogaard said.
DHS made a similar promise after allegations of overtime abuse surfaced in 2008, the Special Counsel said.
In February of that year, a whistleblower alleged abuses at the Office of Border Patrol in Lynden, Washington. After a department report confirmed that employees abused overtime and that senior managers benefited from improperly approved overtime, the agency promised to implement "an Agency-wide AUO policy directive" to prevent misuse throughout the agency.
"That commitment was made more than five years ago," Lerner wrote in her letter to the White House. "The lack of progress in implementing plans first outlined five years ago raises questions about the agency's willingness or ability to confront this important problem."
The use of administrative overtime "functionally [extended] their daily shift by two hours each day, but are not the result of any unpredictable or compelling law enforcement need," Lerner wrote.
Lerner wrote that DHS must curb the abuse and, if warranted, revise the pay system to ensure fair pay for employees who are legitimately working overtime.
The OSC said it is investigating whistleblower allegations of overtime abuse at five DHS locations:
-- CBP's Office of Training and Development in Glynco, Georgia.
-- U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services' Office of Security and Integrity in Washington.
-- Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Houston.
-- CBP's facility in San Ysidro, California.
-- CBP's facility in Laredo, Texas.
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul said the revelations the overtime allowance is meant for agents who work unique hours "often in pursuit of drug smugglers" and other people "who pose a threat" to the nation.
"This money was not meant to be a slush fund for officers or agents at desk jobs who work regular hours and who are clearly taking advantage of the system," he said. "The Committee will continue to investigate abuses such as this."