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Buying off customs officials gets harder

US Customs Service fights corruption in its ranks to foil drug

Twenty thousand dollars just to look the other way - who could resist?

Benjamin LeBron did. In fact the inspector for the US Customs Service in El Paso went further: He reported last year's bribe attempt by drug smugglers to superiors, then played along with the bribe until the smugglers were arrested at the border with 3,000 pounds of marijuana.

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This year Mr. Lebron was awarded Customs' first annual Commissioner's Integrity Award, which carries a $10,000 prize. But with 20,000 employees in some of the country's most corruption-sensitive jobs, Customs knows it can't compete dollar-for-dollar with the drug dealers' mountains of bribe money.

Customs, under stepped-up scrutiny from Congress, is now placing full emphasis on rooting out corruption and keeping the bane of effective law enforcement from taking hold in the first place.

Experts say the vast majority of drugs entering the US over the Southwest border come in through legal ports of entry. "With more drug money increasing the opportunities to corrupt officials, we're seeing a rising trend of this problem," says Rep. Jim Kolbe (R) of Arizona, who chairs the House subcommittee that oversees Customs. "While we don't want to exaggerate it, we can't afford to sweep it under the rug."

Customs' focus on corruption comes even as the problem is taking center stage across the hemisphere. The 34-country Organization of American States, meeting this month in Guatemala, created the Interamerican Anticorruption Convention, which directs members to increase cooperation in international corruption cases.

Earlier this year, Vice President Al Gore hosted the first international conference focusing on corruption among justice, police, border, and customs officials.

In addition, some public officials worry that corruption risks becoming a greater factor in the battle over the world's economic globalization process. Free-trade proponents say perceptions of growing corruption could feed public doubts about more international openness.

Some shortcomings

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Following a first-ever congressional oversight review of Customs operations earlier this year, Customs officials and members of Congress concluded that corruption in the service is not "systemic." Oversight hearings in May by the Senate Finance Committee, which Customs officials had feared might blow up like last year's hearings on the IRS, were less confrontational - in part because Customs Commissioner Raymond Kelly is seen as a determined reformer. Still, almost everyone agrees that shortcomings demand fixed attention.

The most serious weaknesses involve unsatisfactory internal investigations and reviews of longtime employees, as well as the agency's hiring practices. A General Accounting Office report also calls on Customs to follow up to determine what internal weaknesses allow breaches to occur.

With particular emphasis on the Southwest border, the study says Customs needs to do more to deny entering drivers a choice of lanes - and inspectors - and to curtail any identifiable inspection or shift-change patterns.

Inspectors who "look the other way" for a tidy reward, or who sell intelligence or confiscated drugs to traffickers, do exist and have been caught, Mr. Kelly says, but are far from the norm.

While acknowledging shortcomings in internal investigations, Kelly says his naming of a new assistant commissioner for internal affairs, plus streamlined management and more nationally based procedures, are starting to rectify chronic problems.

Kelly is implementing national recruiting and hiring to replace past local-hiring practices, and working on getting approval of pre-employment polygraph tests. Looking at his own district, which includes a chunk of the US-Mexico border, Kolbe says, "anytime you have local hires you almost certainly will have relatives and other connections on the other side of the border." Attitudes in Mexico

In Mexico, corruption of public officials is recognized as a pervasive and debilitating problem. With Mexico's drug-trafficking organizations having risen to "vertical operations" that control everything from production in South America to sales in the US, close ties to Mexico can become a border inspector's Achilles' heel, Kolbe says. That's one reason Kolbe also advocates periodic rotation of inspectors out of sensitive areas.

But Kelly notes that one move can cost up to $60,000. "The way to go is more professional recruitment and better training, then the quality [of new hires] will take care of a lot of these issues."

As one of the strongest proponents of NAFTA in the House, Kolbe is one of those who worries that corruption among public officials on the nation's borders could weaken already faltering support for free trade and international interchange.

"It's a specious argument" to blame open borders for corruption, he says. "It's like saying if there are drugs in schools, then let's close the schools."

Still, he says it's one threat to free trade that will be best reduced by pursuing the "zero tolerance" for corruption that Kelly is demanding.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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