Lawmakers Told Top DHS Official Played Politics, Appeared to Violate Ethics

Homeland Security IG blasts department’s #2 over controversial visa program.

ByABC News
March 26, 2015, 11:47 AM

— -- The Homeland Security Inspector General told Congress today that the federal agency's second in command violated his own ethics policy at least three times by giving special access -- or the appearance of favorable treatment -- to powerful political insiders seeking help with immigration matters.

Asked directly by lawmakers if Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas had violated the ethics policy he had put in place, Inspector General John Roth said yes.

"We believe that policy was not followed," Roth said.

The questions before the House Committee on Homeland Security came two days after the agency's internal watchdog issued a lengthy report about Mayorkas's management at the head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services of an obscure immigration program that grants visas to foreigners who agree to invest $500,000 in a qualified, U.S. job-creating venture.

The IG report came on the heels of an ABC News investigation that revealed that a number of visa recipients were approved despite objections from career officials, who found instances where foreign applicants accused of fraud, money laundering, even involvement in child pornography, had received permission to move to the U.S. The ABC News investigation also found evidence that spies and even possible terrorists had attempted to exploit the visa program to enter the country.

The IG report focused on alleged political favoritism by Mayorkas and specifically highlighted three cases where Mayorkas intervened after being contacted by powerful Democrats, including a past and current governor and the brother of Hillary Clinton.

"We believe there was an appearance of favoritism," Roth told the committee.

PHOTO: Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas declines to answer questions on camera from ABC News' Chief Investigative Correspondent Brian Ross.
Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas declines to answer questions on camera from ABC News' Chief Investigative Correspondent Brian Ross.

Chairman Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said he was "extremely troubled" by the findings.

"The alleged exertion of undue influence ... that resulted in benefits for politically connected and powerful individuals is extremely concerning,” he said.

After the hearing, McCaul said he has asked Mayorkas, who was not on the witness list today, to appear before the committee in the future.

“I’d like to give Mr. Mayorkas the opportunity to tell his side of the story,” McCaul said. “I just want to know the facts and the evidence. It certainly raises a lot of questions of impropriety within the department.”

Mayorkas had previously denied favoring anyone based on political considerations, saying he was seeking to reform a program rife with problems.

Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson said he believed the inspector General had misunderstood the actions Mayorkas took in cases where powerful Democrats had reached out to him.

Thompson called him "an activist manager" who was shaking up a department with low morale.

"I'm a little concerned you went along way to say he didn't do anything wrong," Thompson said at the hearing.

Roth said, "He violated an ethical canon, Congressman."

The three cases studied were developments that sought funding from foreign investors who would receive visas in exchange.

One was an electric car venture headed by Terry McAuliffe, now the Virginia governor, and supported by a business run by Anthony Rodham, Clinton's brother. Both McAuliffe and Rodham made contact with Mayorkas while the car venture was being reviewed, the investigation found. The probe found Mayorkas intervened and reversed staff decisions to assist the project.

Similar findings related to a Las Vegas hotel backed by Sen. Harry Reid and film projects pushed by former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell.

“The juxtaposition of Mr. Mayorkas’ communication with external stakeholders on specific matters outside the normal procedures, coupled with favorable action that deviated from the regulatory scheme designed to ensure fairness and evenhandedness in adjudicating benefits, created an appearance of favoritism and special access,” the IG report said.

Earlier this week Mayorkas wrote a robust response to the IG report, saying his efforts were focused on improving a troubled program, and were always vetted by agency attorneys. On Tuesday, he issued a statement saying, "While I disagree with the Inspector General’s report, I will certainly learn from it and from this process."

"The EB-5 program was badly broken when I arrived at USCIS," he said. "I could not and did not turn my back on my responsibility to address those grave problems. I made improving the program a priority and I did so in a hands-on manner, through cases, policies, and sweeping personnel and organizational changes."

Sen. Charles Grassley, who raised serious concerns about the EB-5 program during an interview with ABC News, said Wednesday he was not satisfied with the department’s response to the inspector general’s findings at this point. Grassley wrote to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to specifically ask how he will address the assertion that Mayorkas’s violated the agency’s ethics policy.

“While I appreciate that you and Mr. Mayorkas have learned from the Inspector General’s report, the standards of ethical conduct should have been followed on day one by the director,” Grassley wrote. “It is incumbent on you to take action to hold him accountable.”