Embattled immigration chief went to fake questioner at first press conference
ICE head already facing criticism for praising offensive Halloween costume
A top immigration official, who has been criticized for her youth, inexperience and poor judgment, took a question from a government employee posing as a reporter during her very first press conference last year, RAW STORY has learned.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement chief Julie Myers called on an agency spokeswoman who was standing with about a dozen other reporters during a February 2006 press conference in San Antonio. Critics had criticized Myers as an unfit nominee because of her lack of immigration experience and close ties to the Bush administration. Her performance at that first press conference was panned when she "struggle[d] to pronounce Nuevo Laredo," a Mexican border town that is a hot spot of criminal activity and drug trafficking into the US.
The ICE employee was told not to ask any questions, and she was verbally reprimanded after doing so, according to a letter delivered last week to the House Committee on Homeland Security.
Committee chairman Bennie Thompson requested the Department of Homeland Security review its press-relations protocols after the Federal Emergency Management Agency was found to have staged a fake press conference in October to respond to raging California wildfires, causing the press conference's organizer to lose a promotion.
"[T]he intent of staff involved in each instance was different, but both episodes were foolish and completely unacceptable," J. Edward Fox, DHS assistant secretary for public affairs, wrote to Thompson. "Nothing can be more important than credibility and integrity when communicating with the public."
Fox's letter said the San Antonio press conference happened in January 2006, although the San Antonio Express News reported Myers' first press conference after garnering a controversial recess appointment as a DHS assistant secretary was not until Feb. 3, 2006.
DHS spokesman Russ Knocke, who discovered the fake question in a review of department press conferences, told RAW STORY that he was unable to determine the precise date of the press conference, which some employees remembered as happening in late January while others remembered the date as early February. Furthermore, he said his investigation did not reveal exactly what question was asked.
"There's some fog," Knocke said in a phone interview Monday. "Most folks who were present do not recollect exactly what the question was."
The immigration spokeswoman, who Knocke refused to name "because of obvious HR restrictions," asked Myers a general question about her feelings on ICE's relationships with other law enforcement agencies, he said based on general characterizations of the question. No transcript of the event exists in DHS or ICE records, Knocke said, although some employees he spoke to gave general characterizations of the question.
According to Fox's letter, the spokeswoman told her supervisor that she wanted to ask Myers a question and ignored her boss's admonition not to question Myers. In "short order" after the press conference, the spokeswoman was verbally reprimanded by her immediate supervisor and a public affairs official at ICE headquarters in Washington, Knocke said.
Myers called on the staff member by name "for purposes of concluding the press conference," after she had answered several reporters' questions, Knocke said. After responding to the staffer, Myers continued to take several more questions from reporters.
The ICE spokeswoman was "well known amongst San Antonio media," Fox wrote, and Knocke said she worked as a reporter in the area before joining the immigration agency. Reporters covering the press conference, which focused on an earlier immigration bust that netted $1 million in cash, drugs and heavy weapons, apparently did not mention that the spokeswoman was among the questioners. Attempts to reach reporters for further comment were unsuccessful Monday.
Since last month's revelations of the fake FEMA press conference, the agency has started to implement new protocols for handling press events that would prohibit government employees from asking questions alongside journalists, Fox wrote. A similar plan is expected to be enacted across DHS offices nationwide.
Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) also came under fire recently when her campaign admitted planting a friendly question with an audience member during a recent town hall forum.
It is unclear how many questions Myers took from real journalists to balance the soft-ball lobbed from her employee. The just-appointed assistant secretary had faced harsh criticism from conservative commentators and lawmakers who said she lacked the law enforcement and management experience to oversee ICE, which has 15,000 workers and a $4 billion budget.
President Bush elevated Myers to the position with a controversial "recess appointment" that subverted the Senate's ability to confirm the nominee. Critics say Myers' ascension to the top spot at ICE was another example of Bush's "cronyism" because she is married to a US Attorney who formerly served as chief of staff DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff and her uncle is Gen. Richard Myers, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"This nomination is a monumental political and policy blunder in the wake of the Michael Brown/FEMA fiasco," wrote conservative blogger Michelle Malkin, a fierce critic of the administration's immigration policies, before Myers took on her new job. "And I can tell you ... rank-and-file DHS employees and immigration enforcement officials are absolutely livid about Myers' nomination."
More recently, Myers was forced to apologize after an ICE employee showed up at a costume party in what many thought was a racist costume and she was on a panel that judged the costume "most original."
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), who sits on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, has placed a temporary hold on Myers' nomination because of her failure to condemn the costumed employee, who reportedly showed up at the party wearing dark makeup, dreadlocks and prison stripes.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has not scheduled a floor vote on the nominee, but Myers has the support of several key Senators and a McCaskill spokeswoman has said she does not intend to hold up the vote indefinitely. A McCaskill spokeswoman did not immediately return a call seeking comment Tuesday.
Myers' recess appointment expires in January, and even some Republicans doubt whether she could or should be confirmed.
"The way things are going, we may not ever vote on her nomination," Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., who is a second cousin of Myers' husband, told the Associated Press earlier this month. "Our nation's immigration enforcement agency needs non-controversial leadership. That would be best served by going in a different direction with this nomination."