The former head of a controversial U.S. immigration program that provides wealthy foreigners an easy -- but expensive -- path to an American Green Card for the first time publicly defended himself before Congress Thursday against allegations of political favoritism.
Alejandro Mayorkas, who is now second in command at the Department of Homeland Security, apologized for creating a perception of favoritism inside the immigration agency he ran, but said that perception was incorrect.
“If I may, Mr. Chairman, the [Department of Homeland Security] Inspector General found that... employees perceived I exercised undue influence in these cases,” Mayorkas told the House Homeland Security Committee. “I bear responsibility for the perception of my employees. That is my responsibility and I acknowledge that.”
But when questioned on the actual details of the allegations against him, laid out in fine detail in a 99-page report by the Homeland Security Inspector General, Mayorkas provided almost no information, repeatedly professing to have lapses in memory, or hedging his responses with qualifying phrases.
“I don’t remember the chronology in that particular case,” he said when asked if he had reversed a staff decision just one hour after a phone call with former Pennsylvania governor and Democratic Party chairman Ed Rendell, as the report alleged.
“I am not questioning the facts that the Inspector General lays out,” he said. “What I am sharing with you is that I do not recall the chronology in that case.”
The report echoed a number of allegations reported by ABC News about the immigration program known as EB-5, which offers foreign nationals a visa if they invest $500,000 in a qualified U.S. venture that will create at least 10 American jobs. If the project succeeds in creating the jobs, the foreign investor is entitled to a Green Card. Whistleblowers outlined a series of cases in which middle-man organizations that help recruit investors had been accused of fraud or other crimes.
ABC News attempted to interview Mayorkas about the allegations last fall ahead of its report on the program, but he did not answer questions, allowing a press advisor to body-block the television camera while he scooted to a waiting SUV. An aide later told ABC News he was reluctant to speak while the Inspector General’s investigation was still pending.
The Inspector General’s report, released in March, focuses on three specific cases where phone records, email, and interviews with dozens of whistleblowers appeared to show Mayorkas intervening in cases after receiving complaints from political officials including then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Terry McAuliffe, now serving as the Governor of Virginia.
Mayorkas had the full backing of the Democrats who attended the committee hearing right from the beginning – one even objected to his being sworn in prior to offering his answers. “I think telling the truth is the number one goal this committee should have,” the committee chairman responded.
Democrats noted that politicians from both parties had intervened in investor visa cases, including those that were the focus of the inspector general’s findings. But even when asked to confirm that well-connected Republicans also pressured him in those cases, Mayorkas said he had difficulty recalling the details.
“The point I’m trying to make is, you have an inspector general’s report that would lead you to believe that only Democrats contacted you on behalf of these projects,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson, Miss., the ranking Democrat on the committee.
The committee’s chairman, Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said he was persuaded that Mayorkas had violated his own ethics policy by privately holding meetings with outside interests and then reversing the decisions made by career officials.
“If you create a policy, which you did, I think you need to follow it,” he said.
Mayorkas said that, to the extent he deviated from internal policies, he did so for a greater purpose – to insure the process worked the way it was intended.
“I think that our collaborative review of these issues led to the correct result in these cases,” he said.