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Overtime System At Customs And Border Protection Investigated


Whistle-blowers at U.S. Customs and Border Protection say employees there are abusing an overtime program designed for law enforcement emergencies. A federal watchdog says even desk workers in the agency have been claiming routine overtime every day and that is costing taxpayers $40 million a year. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The program known as Administratively Uncontrolled Overtime - or AUO - dates back 40 years. Days when agents on horseback would spend long hours patrolling the Southwest border and then ride long distances back to their stations. Times have changed. But practices at Customs and Border Protection haven't always changed along with them.

CAROLYN LERNER: We need to make sure that the work is driving overtime pay and it's not just an entitlement.

JOHNSON: That's Carolyn Lerner. She leads the Office of Special Counsel. And she's been investigating the use of Administratively Uncontrolled Overtime.

LERNER: If someone is, you know, chasing down someone who's trying to cross the border illegally, that's an appropriate law enforcement reason to use AUO. What we're seeing, however, is that it's widespread regardless of what the job duties are. So CrossFit trainers are claiming AUO, office workers are claiming AUO - folks with no legitimate reason.

JOHNSON: Lerner's heard from more than a dozen whistle-blowers, including people like Jimmy Elam. He's a paralegal who blew the whistle on practices in San Diego.

JIMMY ELAM: It's just as likely as not during that, you know, two hours of overtime as they were putting in daily, you could find them goofing off as you could working. You know, it's about a 50-50 call.

JOHNSON: I asked him what he meant by goofing off.

ELAM: Surfing on the Internet, you know, shopping on the Internet, sitting around with their smart phones watching funny videos.

JOHNSON: Investigators at Customs and Border Protection says the overtime program, designed for emergencies, has sometimes been misused to cover routine work. But Paul Hamrick, a deputy in the internal affairs unit, disputes the claim that employees were goofing off during all those overtime hours.

PAUL HAMRICK: CBP takes seriously its responsibility to ensure the proper use of taxpayer funds. While many frontline officers and agents across the department require work hour flexibility, often through the use of AUO, misuse of these funds is not tolerated.

JOHNSON: Earlier this year, after the whistle-blowers started to talk publicly, the new leader of the Department of Homeland Security barred 900 workers from using the overtime system. Carolyn Lerner of the federal whistle-blower office says she's encouraged by that step. But many border agents had a different reaction - that they'd lose a big chunk of pay they feel they were promised. Brandon Judd's president of the National Border Patrol Council

BRANDON JUDD: Back in 1997, when I came to the border patrol, the recruitment that I was offered was 25 percent Administratively Uncontrolled Overtime for the rest of my career. That's what we were told we were going to get.

JOHNSON: Oklahoma Republican Senator Tom Coburn often rails against government waste. But Coburn says in this case, he can understand where some agents are coming from.

SENATOR TOM COBURN: How do we compensate our border patrol agents at the level of which they have been being compensated and make sure they're secure in the future? I don't want to take 25 percent of anybody's pay away.

JOHNSON: Senators are considering legislation that would boost the overall pay system for CBP. But Coburn says the bill includes a lot of jobs that don't involve law enforcement emergencies. He wants to make sure the legislation won't enshrine the long-troubled overtime program under another name. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.