Senate Committee Memo Details US Marshals Service's Long History Of Misconduct

Senator Chuck Grassley is leaving his post as the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, firing some parting shots at the US Marshals Service on his way out the door. His 20-page memo [PDF] detailing years of USMS misconduct comes with over 400 pages of exhibits -- source documents, email chains, and other evidence backing up the disturbing narrative.

The USMS wasted taxpayer dollars, misused asset forfeiture funds, engaged in routine retaliation against whistleblowers, and -- for an entire decade -- forged a judge's signature on more than 800 subpoenas.

A 2007 OIG investigation prompted by reports from a whistleblower uncovered evidence that a USMS task force there had been routinely customizing an electronic subpoena template and pasting in a digital image of a local judge’s signature obtained from legitimate court documents in order to give the appearance of official judicial approval. The OIG found that between the years 1995 and 2005, approximately 800 fraudulent subpoenas had been served by the task force.

A decade of fraudulent behavior was followed by a single written reprimand of a deputy marshal who was later promoted to Supervisory Criminal Investigator. Given this culture of unaccountability, it's little surprise two high-profile incidents involving US Marshals and solicitation of prostitutes was greeted with minimal punishments for everyone involved.

There has been no improvement over the last decade.

Just last year, in what the DOJ OIG called an instance of “gross mismanagement,” a Chief Deputy United States Marshal who engaged in sexual harassment, misused his government phone and vehicle, obstructed an OIG investigation by threatening and retaliating against subordinates, and lied to the DOJ OIG, was allowed to retire with full benefits and without receiving any punishment whatsoever.

And, while the USMS was willing to blow funds on expensive, rarely-used 'training centers' featuring "high-end granite countertops" and "custom artwork," it wasn't so willing to spend money to keep its employees safe. After USMA testing determined body armor needed to be replaced every five years, Service management chose to address the impending purchase of 4,000 body armor panels by doing nothing. It finally secured a replacement contract in 2016, but the contract only provided for phased replacement, which would mean some vests would have been nearly a decade past their "expiration date" before being replaced.

When employees complained about using expired body armor, USMS was telling Congress (and USMS staff) that the 5-year lifetime estimate wasn't accurate and that the vests were still safe to use. It made these statements while simultaneously asking Congress for additional funding in 2017, citing specifically the 13% failure rate in testing of older equipment.

In short, the USMS was representing to Congress that this study showed that expired body armor was dangerous and needed to be replaced while telling its own employees that the old armor was safe to use.

Acting Director Harlow’s email also raises serious concerns about the operational awareness of senior officials. Acting Director Harlow wrote, “if armor is in good condition and has been properly cared for…it retains its full ballistic capabilities.” This statement neglects to take into account that Deputy Marshals across the country perform their duties in the heat, cold, rain, and snow. Exposure to sunlight, humidity, or even excessive flexing or bending of armor can lead to degradation over time. It is difficult to imagine a situation in which a Deputy Marshal would not expose their body armor to any of those factors on a daily basis.

Multiple whistleblower complaints -- followed by multiple acts of reprisal by the USMS -- paint a picture of an agency that is accountable to no one, not even the Judiciary Committee that is supposed to be overseeing it.

Throughout this investigation, the Committee has uncovered countless instances of mismanagement, favoritism, and a lack of accountability. The OIG has confirmed many of the allegations the Committee has received, and identified multiple additional instances of misconduct and mismanagement—including by the most senior leaders in the agency. Those leaders set the tone for the entire organization, and their actions affect employees throughout their many districts and divisions.

Grassley's memo is an extremely disturbing read. Given its contents, it's hard to believe Grassley actually thinks installing a new director will root out the deep-seated problems detailed in his report. But I guess those are the things you say to the New Guy, especially when you're no longer directly involved in keeping an eye on him.

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