Blind Man's Bluff

Bureaucratic confusion within the Border Patrol shortchanges the visually impaired.

Soon after the Clinton Administration was sworn into office Vice President Al Gore began his effort to streamline and reinvent government. Regulations considered tired and useless were stripped or "sunset," replaced with more effective guidelines.

But in some cases, guidelines and regulations were sunset but never replaced. Take, for example, rules that governed the management and oversight of employee welfare and recreation funds within the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which were discarded but never replaced.

The changes have caused infighting within the Tucson Sector of the U.S. Border Patrol regarding thousands of dollars generated by numerous vending machines in various locations throughout the patrol's sector, which covers most of southern Arizona except Yuma County. Complicating matters is a federal law, the Randolph-Sheppard Act, which mandates a portion of all vending machine revenue be collected and used to benefit the legally blind.

Currently the Border Patrol has vending machines in 11 locations throughout the Tucson Sector.

The Weekly has been able to verify that for a six-year period, the Tucson Sector has not paid a dime of its mandated per capita split to benefit the blind as required by the Randolph-Sheppard Act. During this time, the sector's welfare and recreation fund has lacked oversight and administrative guidelines.

The Arizona Business Enterprise Program (AZBEP), a unit of the Rehabilitation Services Administration of the Arizona Department of Economic Security, manages the vending machine income distribution agreements with state-based federal agencies. AZBEP is also responsible for the collection of funds which are redistributed to programs which assist the blind.

George Lopez, the Border Patrol's assistant chief patrol agent, told the Weekly the sector had contacted the state agency sometime last year but "they (AZBEP) never got back to us. I think our operation down here probably doesn't generate enough money to interest them."

Otis Stevenson, AZBEP's Phoenix-based manager who oversees compliance issues involving the Randolph-Sheppard Act, says the statement made by Lopez "isn't true."

"We are very interested in the Tucson Sector of the Border Patrol," said Stevenson.

Ron Sanders was the chief patrol agent of the Tucson Sector in 1995 when he first learned of the situation. Sanders, who retired from the Border Patrol in July 1999, said he believes the Clinton Administration intended to replace the old regulations but never got around to it.

When William King, special agent in charge of the Justice Department's Tucson Office of the Inspector General, informed Sanders that the sector could be sitting on issues which could be vulnerable to allegations of fraud and misappropriation, Sanders said he called the INS legal department in Washington, D.C.

Sanders said INS lawyers told him the lack of guidelines covering welfare and recreation oversight regulations and vending machine revenue was not a legal issue, but a management concern.

"So the problem of setting up new procedures to cover our welfare and recreation fund was turned over to our management team at INS," said Sanders. "They simply never addressed the problem."

"As far as I know the INS has never addressed this issue," said Sanders. "With 1,500 agents in the Tucson Sector alone and hundreds of thousands of detainees being processed through the various stations, the amount of money into the (welfare and recreation association) fund is huge. We're talking about a lot of money."

When the INS failed to provide new guidelines, Sanders assigned Special Assistant to the Chief Antonia Looney to coordinate the development of a standard operating procedure for the welfare and recreation association. Looney inherited the files, which showed little or nothing was done by those who has previously received the assignment.

Looney began looking into the issues involving the welfare and recreation fund a few months before Sanders retired in July 1999.

Sanders said Looney's assignment included making sure the agency was in compliance with federal fraud, waste and abuse guidelines. Soon after Looney began her research in the summer of 1999, one of the individuals in charge of the welfare and recreation fund claimed she did not have to comply with the Randolph-Sheppard Act because she had a waiver from the requirements of the law. Looney requested a copy of the waiver and access to the association's financial records, but her request was denied.

Documents obtained from Looney's personal attorney indicate Looney was soon to find herself between a rock and a hard place.

Management officials began to make it clear that everyone was upset with her for seeking compliance with the Randolph-Sheppard Act, according to document files provided by her attorney.

Looney drafted a memorandum for Acting Chief Patrol Agent E.B. Pyeatt to be sent to all welfare and recreation officers within the Tucson Sector. The memo requested officers send copies of vending machine management records and financial receipts to Pyeatt's office. The memorandum, dated September 7, 1999, was never sent.

Looney waited for Pyeatt to back her investigation, but he remained unresponsive. On September 29, 1999, Looney wrote to William King of the Office of the Inspector General, letting the cat out of the bag. Looney told King an employee in charge of the fund was stonewalling her investigation and Pyeatt was unwilling to comply with federal statute and was, in her opinion, involved in a cover-up on behalf of the employee in charge of the fund.

Looney's letter to the OIG had a dramatic negative effect to her career, said Looney's attorney, Heidy Hunt. For pursuing her assignment to bring the sector into compliance with the Randolph-Sheppard Act, Looney had paid the ultimate price within her organization: she had fallen from grace.

In October, Looney briefed David Aguilar, who was slated to become the new sector chief. Aguilar quietly listened.

In December, when Aguilar was on board as Chief Patrol Agent, he was ordered by Regional INS Director Johnny Williams to meet with Looney after Looney complained that Aguilar was not acting on any of the issues she had brought to his attention, including the lack of compliance with the Randolf-Sheppard Act.

According to Looney's attorney, Aguilar questioned Looney's authority to audit the books of the welfare and rec fund. It was too late for explanations. Looney was slowly stripped of her duties and responsibilities. Her internal calls and memos were not returned. And to make her degradation complete, she was routinely asked to leave the room when confidential issues were being discussed.

Today, six years after the OIG Audit and a year and a half after David Aguilar took the reins as chief patrol agent, the Tucson Sector is still out of compliance with the Randolph-Sheppard Act. Looney is not allowed to do her duties and is routinely humiliated and ostracized.

Stevenson, who is relatively new manager at the AZBEP, said at this time he is unable to determine if his agency would assess the Border Patrol with a schedule of back payments from the time they received a structured notice from his agency.

Last week, King told the Weekly the case is closed because the sector complied some time ago. Upon learning the sector still had not complied with the Randolph-Sheppard Act, King was taken aback.

"If this is true, if the sector still hasn't complied, I'll review the file," said King. "Then I'm going to reopen the case."