Security Shell Game

A whistle-blower targets misspent border funds

On clear desert nights, even low voices bang against tight canyons or float along a dusty wash. On such nights, darkness crawls with whispers--those of desperate migrants, fire-powered narcos and feral bandits. It is amidst this human cacophony that U.S. Border Patrol agents ply their trade. And for the Tucson Sector, that means babysitting 261 noisy miles of international boundary, often in terribly remote badlands.

This lovely beat also comes complete with "dead zones." These lonesome postings are far in the outback, where agency radios and phones simply can't reach. And for officers during a nighttime run amok, that can be very lonely indeed.

Meet Charles Cape. Last year, the veteran federal communications expert was hired to ramrod a cutting-edge, wireless communications upgrade for the Southwest, under the Department of Homeland Security. Among other things, the system would eliminate dreaded dead zones.

But this July, Cape blew the whistle on his own agency, claiming that funds meant for beefing up border communications had simply disappeared into a Washington, D.C., black hole. "I've never seen one dollar since I've been out here," Cape told reporter Mark Flatten at the East Valley Tribune in Mesa. "There's nothing. They've sucked it all up at headquarters."

That comes at a terrible cost, Cape told the Tribune. "By applying technology, it bolsters our chances of stopping terrorists at the border, and it provides security for law enforcement folks who are out there. If we can apply technology and capture (terrorists) before they get out of this area, then all the better for us as a nation. Delaying just leaves us vulnerable, and it's just going to get more expensive."

Cape has also dispatched a complaint to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (the OSC is an independent federal investigation agency that, as part of its mission, protects whistleblowers from reprisals). Misuse of these funds "have seriously harmed the ability of DHS to provide new wireless service to protect the borders of the United States," Cape wrote, "in particular the Southwest border, and have increased the possibility of (a) terrorist entering the nation."

Since talking to Flatten, however, Cape has clammed up. "I am now being prohibited from speaking to the media," he tells the Tucson Weekly. "But God knows, I'd like to."

Still, his charges have sparked a political maelstrom. In a written statement, Arizona Sen. John McCain pushed the DHS and the Office of Special Counsel to quickly get at the truth. And Gov. Janet Napolitano has jumped into fray, describing the possible fund diversions as "outrageous."

Congress is also stirring the pot. When funding questions were raised with the DHS, "initially, their response was 'God, we've never even heard of this,'" says Brian Murray, district director for Arizona Rep. J.D. Hayworth. "But after a call from a congressman, miraculously, they found some information."

With prompting from Hayworth and Arizona Rep. John Shadegg, the House Committee on Homeland Security is digging into the issue. "It's pretty clear," says Murray, "that these funds were to go to the border, and not to bureaucracy."

That certainly seemed the intention last year, when Congress allocated $100 million for developing a communications program called the Integrated Wireless Network. This year, another $86 million was allocated specifically for the ambitious, collaborative project between the departments of Homeland Security, Justice and Treasury. When complete, the IWN would create a singular, top-to-bottom communications link between emergency responders, from federal agencies down to local police.

Cape says that money was also slated for vital technology upgrades in Southern Arizona, from Border Patrol cars equipped with wireless computer terminals to weather balloons that carry radio repeaters--and eliminate dead zones.

Cape's credibility makes it tough for DHS mandarins to simply dismiss him--the Army retiree spent 16 years as a top federal wireless technology expert, and came to Arizona after working directly with former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.

Still, they try: "Mr. Cape's allegations are all incorrect--there is no misappropriation of funds," says DHS spokesman Larry Orluskie in Washington, D.C. "He's just upset that $60 million in the budget was not allocated to Charlie Cape." Furthermore, says Orluskie, the money "went where it was supposed to go. And part of where it was supposed to go is to wireless management for the southern border. It wasn't just so everybody could have radios in their back pocket. It's for intricate systems that are being designed and built."

Maybe so. Still, the DHS Office of the Inspector is worried enough to begin its own investigation of those intricate systems--or at least the agency's Byzantine bookkeeping. "Our auditors are looking into it," says Tamara Faulkner, the inspector's congressional liaison. "We're trying to wrap it up quickly."

Meanwhile, this is all a bit sticky for the Border Patrol, which needs the equipment but also must play nice with the DHS, its parent agency. Tucson Sector spokeswoman Andrea Zortman referred questions about Charles Cape to the agency's Washington, D.C. press office. And those press officers didn't return several calls from the Weekly.