While shocking stories were appearing in the news of Mexican cartels controlling hundreds of square miles of U.S. territory up to 70 miles north of the border, the Department of Homeland Security was spending millions of dollars on employee conferences — and hiding the total amount it was spending from government overseers.
According to an audit report by the Office of Inspector General, DHS spent $21.8 million on conferences in 2014 and 2015 combined. It failed to report more than half of the conferences on which it spent more than $100,000, as it is required to do under federal regulations.
“The mammoth agency created after 9/11 to prevent another terrorist attack fails miserably to protect the southern border, to bust dangerous visa overstays, and to remove criminal illegal aliens — but it knows how to throw a party for employees and ‘stakeholders,'” conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch wrote in a press release on July 25.
In the audit report, the inspector general wrote that DHS failed to report six conferences in fiscal year 2014 and 14 in fiscal year 2015 that cost more than $100,000, and sometimes underreported costs, or did not have documentation to support all costs.
In fiscal year 2014, DHS spent a total of $11.4 million on 433 conferences, and in fiscal year 2015 a total of $10.4 million on 478 conferences.
The Department of Homeland Security has a budget of $40.6 billion and employs more than 240,000 people. It includes U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Secret Service, and the U.S. Coast Guard.
During the two-year period covered by the audit, Jeh Johnson was Secretary of Homeland Security.
The audit report does not show where the conferences took place, or how many employees attended, but other Homeland Security documents detail specific conferences, such as a Women in Federal Law Enforcement conference in Washington, D.C., that took place Aug. 25-27, 2014, with the event description saying the organization’s goal is to “achieve equity for women in law enforcement by maximizing the benefits of gender diversity.” The conference cost taxpayers $125,248.
Other conferences seemed to be more directly related to training for law enforcement, and most closely related to securing the nation. But many Americans may question why, in the age of the internet, a federal agency would need to spend so much to bring people from many parts of the country together in one place, and whether those leading the agency weren’t ignoring the dire need to protect the border using all available resources.
In 2015, the second year covered by the audit, the U.S. was dealing with an enormous influx of unaccompanied minors who were streaming over the U.S.-Mexico border. In June of that year, 10,622 minors from Mexico and Central America illegally crossed the border, the vast majority of them males ages 15-17. The federal government later revealed that up to 30 percent of the unaccompanied minors it was caring for had ties to criminal gangs.
Thousands of these minors were placed in communities around the country, and some went on to commit serious crimes, including murder.
The cost of the conferences was highlighted in the audit because of government regulations introduced under former President Barack Obama that required agencies to eliminate excess spending on conferences and report any event that cost more than $100,000. But the Trump administration has since repealed this rule.
Judicial Watch says the new revelations of $21.8 million spent on conferences by DHS and the failure to report more than half of conferences on which $100,000 was spent shows the rule is needed.
“Apparently, the measures weren’t very effective but eliminating them doesn’t seem like a solution either,” Judicial Watch wrote in its July 25 release to the media. “There’s no telling the abuses that a massive agency like DHS, with more than 240,000 employees and an annual budget of $40.6 billion, will commit without proper oversight.”