The Obama administration’s nominee to be the watchdog within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) received bipartisan support Wednesday from the Senate panel that will vote on his confirmation and said that one of his top priorities will be to complete an ongoing investigation of alleged improprieties by the new deputy secretary of the department, Alejandro Mayorkas, while he was the head of agency that oversees lawful immigration into the United States.

If confirmed as the inspector general of DHS, John Roth told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that the investigation and subsequent report on Mayorkas will be “a top priority.” Mayorkas was sworn in as deputy secretary in late December after the Senate approved his confirmation along party lines.

John Roth, nominee to be DHS IG. Photo: Dept. of Justice.
John Roth, nominee to be DHS IG. Photo: Dept. of Justice.

The Senate committee approved Mayorkas’ confirmation in mid-December without Republican support. Republicans wanted to wait until the ongoing investigation by the DHS is complete but Democrats on the panel said it had gone on long enough and that so far the IG’s office had found no wrongdoing by either Mayorkas or DHS (Defense Daily, Dec. 12, 2013).

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), ranking member of the committee, told Roth that he wants the investigation into Mayorkas to be finished promptly and its basis to be without reproach. He also said that Roth is “well equipped” to ensure that DHS is complying with the law and “I certainly look forward to supporting you.”

Coburn said in December that the IG is expected to report its findings in February.

The IG’s office is investigating Mayorkas’ management of an immigrant visa program as well as conflicts of interest, misuse of position, mismanagement, and the appearance of impropriety during his service as director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigrations Services agency within DHS.

Roth currently leads the criminal investigations office of the Food and Drug Administration and also spent 25 years within the Justice Department in various roles, including as an assistant U.S. Attorney. He also was detailed to the 9/11 Commission as senior counsel and team leader of its team on terrorist financing.

A committee aide told Defense Daily that the vote on Roth’s confirmation hasn’t been scheduled yet but Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.) “is eager to move this nomination as soon as possible.”

DHS has been without a permanent IG since Richard Skinner left the office in March of 2011. Since then, one nomination has been withdrawn. Carper said the lack of a permanent IG for so long “is inexcusable” and said Roth meets the “high standard” needed for the job.

The acting IG for most of the time was Charles Edwards, who was the deputy IG. Edwards resigned last month under a cloud of allegations.

“These allegations include a failure to uphold the independence and integrity of the DHS OIG office, the abuse of agency personnel and resources for personal benefit, and improper favoritism, retaliation and destruction of records,” according to a hearing agenda the Senate committee published last month. The hearing, which was to include testimony by Edwards, was canceled after he resigned.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) asked Roth what he would do about the “warring factions” within the IG’s office. She pointed out that two IG field agents have already been indicted for trying to conceal lapses in the standards of the IG’s office. She said that “many of the field offices…believe they have suffered in morale because of the heavy hand of the central [IG] office. On the other hand, you’ve got people being indicted for falsifying records to conceal information in regard to standards.”

Roth said he knows that this will be a difficult issue to grapple with and would hope to be able to hit a “reset” button to “refocus” people on the IG mission and put the past in the past. He also expects to travel to the field offices to be a “good listener” and try and resolve the issues to the benefit of the department.

Roth also agreed with other committee members to look into various DHS matters if he is confirmed. He told Coburn that he would meet with senior department leaders to review why there are more than 1,200 open but unimplemented IG recommendations to see if it is a problem of “capacity” or “political will.” He also said that the IG’s office needs to do a better job of following-up its recommendations if they aren’t being implemented.

Coburn also raised the issue of a large backlog of cases at the IG’s office and asked how Roth would handle the workload. Roth responded that he’ll discuss the matter with the assistant IG for Investigations but noted that having to manage large caseloads is a problem for all investigative offices. He later said that he expects to prioritize cases based on the anti-terrorism mission of DHS and the need for the department to be ever mindful of how it spends taxpayer dollars.

Other issues that Roth said he would look into include border security, particularly metrics around how effectiveness here is measured, privacy issues related to the collection of individuals’ data for inclusion in trusted traveler programs, whether DHS has sufficient management resources to carry out certain functions such as oversight of acquisitions, and alleged abuse of overtime pay by some DHS employees.