During James Tomsheck’s tumultuous time at US Customs and Border Protection, where he served for eight years as head of Internal Affairs for a historically secretive agency, he repeatedly spoke out against corruption in the Border Patrol. And, according to him, he suffered the consequences.
He has filed two whistle-blower complaints, one in 2011 after receiving a poor performance review that he alleges was in retaliation for his outspokenness, and the second after being pushed out of the agency in 2014. Tomsheck spoke with me over the phone last month about the Border Patrol’s culture of non-transparency, the dangers of Trump’s desired hiring surge, and the history of violence, cover-ups, and recalcitrance in the agency.
John Washington: You were ousted from the Customs and Border Protection agency (CBP) for speaking out against the agency, or for not following the “corporate message.” What sort of signal does your treatment send to other agents or officials who witness corruption or violence and who are thinking of speaking out?
James Tomsheck: In June of 2014, [then] Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske issued me what’s called a 3R letter, which is a letter allowing me to accept reassignment, resign, or retire. It so happens that I was eligible to retire and chose to do so. From colleagues within the Border Patrol [BP], I was warned that it was an effort to discredit me. If I had chosen to [be reassigned], there would have been an ongoing battle I would have walked into, the intent of which was to discredit me. Within an hour of my being issued that letter, the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, followed by just about every major newspaper in the country, printed stories that I had been fired because I had been insufficiently aggressive in dealing with excessive use of force and that I had failed to discipline BP agents. Exactly the opposite of that is true.
I was a frequent critic of both [CBP human resources] and BP leadership for not properly disciplining agents, where I was always told, “Not your area of responsibility. Don’t want your input.” Kerlikowske will tell you that I was subject to a “routine reassignment.” No part of that is true, but that is the official company line. At the end of the day, [the media] wrote something that was enormously harmful and damaging to my reputation, which has continued to cause considerable problems for both myself and my family. It was beyond very unpleasant.
But there is no question—as I have been told by many, and knew myself in the beginning—that part of what they did and the way they did it was to discredit me for what I had already testified to before a Senate subcommittee, and what I had said in many Senate and House staff briefings, and what I had put forward in the way of official memorandums to CBP leadership. That included myself and my deputy, James Wong, being summoned to then-Deputy Commissioner Aguilar’s office and being ordered by him to redefine corruption in a way that would reduce the actual number of corruption arrests that we reported, from 80-something to 20-something. There was no question in my mind that he was ordering us to cook the books [editor’s note: Aguilar has not publicly responded to Tomsheck’s allegation regarding this incident. The Nation was unsuccessful in attempting to contact Aguilar]. Something that we would never give any consideration to doing, but not only did they want to inhibit transparency, they wanted to flat out lie. And that’s exactly what that episode was about.