Thursday, September 24, 2009

Fired lawyer complains of border agency misconduct

Associated Press / Houston Chronicle
September 24, 2009
by Michelle Roberts

SAN ANTONIO — A former lawyer for the little-known federal agency that helps control the flow of the Rio Grande and the U.S. boundary with Mexico said Thursday that he was fired after complaining of gross mismanagement, including funds misappropriation and repair of levees that the agency knew would be useless.

Robert McCarthy was fired as general counsel from the International Boundary and Water Commission in July, days after he disclosed his concerns to federal auditing agencies. He complained to the auditing agency after IBWC leadership ignored several written opinions, he said.

"I felt like I was talking to a brick wall. I did put several opinions in writing as these issues were surfacing and never received any positive response," said McCarthy.

Commissioner C.W. "Bill" Ruth, appointed by President George W. Bush in November after the previous commissioner died in a plane crash, cited those opinions in his termination letter, accusing McCarthy of "failure to support me or other members of the executive staff in a constructive or collegial manner."

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a group that advocates for government employees, filed a whistle-blower retaliation complaint Thursday on behalf of McCarthy with the Merit Systems Protection Board. An administrative judge will hear the case and make a recommendation to the board on whether McCarthy should get his job back.

IBWC spokeswoman Sally Spener said the agency, headquartered in El Paso, could not comment on McCarthy's case or allegations because they were part of a personnel matter and under litigation.

McCarthy, who spent eight years as an Interior Department lawyer before joining the IBWC in January, said he was ordered to sign a cost-sharing agreement with the Department of Homeland Security on the construction of levees that would help settle a fight over the border fence in the Rio Grande Valley. But McCarthy felt the arrangement violated federal law prohibiting one agency from subsidizing the purposes of another agency.

In the case of misappropriated funds, "an employee who doesn't report that is just as liable as one who approves it," he said.

McCarthy said he was also concerned about the agency's decision to repair levees in Presidio, Texas, the site of flooding last fall. The agency had consultant reports saying the levees couldn't be repaired and will be undermined by flooding again, but went ahead anyway.

"I call that a 'cosmetic levee.' It looks like they've done something but they haven't," he said.

McCarthy's personnel complaint filed with the merit system board paints the IBWC as an agency plagued by rogue employees and lax standards. Among the other accusations:

_ An executive staff member wiretapped a group of employees after he didn't get a job he wanted in the agency.

_ Several employees received unlawful salary increases over the objections of personnel staff.

_ A pair of executive staff members made false anonymous reports to the State Department about an engineer who attempted to implement changes at the agency.

_ A multimillion-dollar levee contract was solicited under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act without using federal standards, instead plugging in specifications from a local project that may not comply with federal rules.

IBWC, a binational agency responsible for maintaining the international border, is part of the State Department for funding purposes but is supposed to answer directly to the president.

Based on McCarthy's allegations, the General Accounting Office has an investigation pending and is coordinating with the State Department Office of Inspector General.

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