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What's a couple thousand computers between friends?



Published: Wed, August 14, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



Heaven help an American returning from overseas who forgets to declare to customs agents purchases above the legal limit. But apparently Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill doesn't believe in openly declaring what's wrong with the customs service -- especially the disappearance of nearly $700,000 worth of computers, weapons and badges. It took a request from Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, to get a copy of the Treasury Department's audit, and sections of the one he was sent had been blacked out -- under the guise of the report's being "law enforcement sensitive." The only aspect of this sorry mess that might be law-enforcement sensitive is the embarrassment to O'Neill, his department and the U.S. Customs Service

About a year ago, Grassley, the ranking member on the Senate Finance Committee, first asked the Treasury Department's inspector to audit all the department's bureaus, including the Customs Service, for items that if lost or stolen might compromise national security. The Justice Department's inspector general was undertaking similar audits of Justice's law enforcement agencies, so the request should have been nothing unusual.

Publicly funded report

And according to Grassley's office, the first Justice Department audit of the Immigration and Naturalization Service was released last year, and audits of the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the U.S. Marshals Service were released to the public on Aug. 5. The Treasury Department was not so forthcoming. But as Grassley told The Vindicator, because "These are publicly funded reports of publicly funded agencies ... they should be released whenever possible."

It's no wonder, however, that the Treasury Department should want to hide its inspector general's findings. During the 1999 through 2001 fiscal years, the U.S. Customs Service lost or had stolen 2,251 computers -- 5 percent of the total 2001 inventory -- 59 firearms and 613 badges. Although the missing guns represent barely .2 percent of the total inventory, one was used in a robbery and another in a gang-related drive-by shooting.

The loss of these items is bad enough, but the report also revealed the disappearance of Customs-seized drugs with a street value of several hundred thousand dollars, including 1 kilo of heroin. To simply report that the case of the heroin was closed with neither recovery, prosecutorial nor administrative action does not provide the information the public needs.

Covering up bad news -- and the Customs Services' inventory problems are certainly bad news -- only makes the bad news worse.




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