Washington Gadfly

Senate Committee Demands DHS Produce Whistle-Blower Smear Documents


Evan Gahr Investigative Journalist
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In a letter released Wednesday, Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman [crscore]Ron Johnson[/crscore] (R-WI) asked Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson for all documents and communications regarding the dismissal of ICE whistle-blower Taylor Johnson and his underlings’ secretive effort to discredit her to reporters.

Confused by all these Johnsons?

It’s hard not to be. The story also features a cameo by then-Senate Majority Leader [crscore]Harry Reid[/crscore] (D-NV).

Let’s re-cap.

In 2013, Johnson, a decorated agent, was stripped of her gun and badge without explanation and placed on desk duty. The single mother of four was ousted right after Reid’s office complained to her boss because she would not approve a special green card for a Chinese investor in the Las Vegas casino represented by his lawyer son Rory.

Johnson had also voiced concern that these EB-5 visas for foreigners like the younger Reid’s clients who invest at least $500,000 in an American company were being issued to applicants without proper scrutiny, thereby endangering national security.

The Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General concluded in a March 2015 report that then-U.S. Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS) director Alejandro Mayorkas  intervened in “a highly unusual matter” on behalf of Reid for the Las Vegas SLS Hotel and Casino then represented by his son.

Mayorkas, now DHS deputy secretary, also lobbied for companies tied to Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Hillary Clinton’s half-brother Tony Rodham and former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell.

In June 2015, Johnson testified at a nationally televised committee hearing about her troubles with the agency and concerns about the program.

She recalled determining that EB-5 applicants from China, Russia, Pakistan and Malaysia were approved in “as little as 16 days” and case files “lacked the basic and necessary law enforcement queries.”

Seven months later, ICE fired Taylor Johnson, ostensibly for lack of candor regarding a drug interdiction operation in 2011.

Interestingly, the first rationale ICE gave for her cutting her loose — hundreds of improper phone calls to a confidential informant from the Mexican border stop — quickly imploded. It turned out that informant’s “number” on Johnson’s phone log actually belonged to her mother.

Johnson, of course, never heard any objections about the 2011 action until Harry Reid’s office turned the screws on her.

After declining a $100,000 severance package and non-disclosure agreement, Johnson was axed on Feb. 4.

That’s right.

ICE lawyer J. Douglas Whittaker thought it was a bright idea to pay Johnson not to discuss what she already said at nationally televised Senate hearing!

Certainly, the testimony sparked a feverish effort by ICE to discredit her.

In response to a routine inquiry about Johnson last December, ICE press secretary Gillian Christensen, citing confidential information, demanded to convince the Washington Gadly off the record that she was a bad employee and liar.

The veteran flack berated her caller for refusing to talk off the record like reporters do “all the time.”

Uh, you probably don’t want to brag about that anymore!

In his letter, Sen. Johnson extensively cites the Gadly’s story about the conversation with Christensen, which is also under investigation by the DHS inspector general. He seems eager to determine if she pulled a similar stunt with other reporters.

“In December 2015, a news outlet reported that an ICE spokesperson made disparaging comments about Agent Johnson to a member of the press and then tried to negotiate an off-the record conversation in exchange for turning over private employment information about Agent Johnson.”

“In discussions with my staff, ICE personnel have admitted to being aware of this allegation but could not say whether ICE had opened internal investigation into this allegation,” the senator lamented. “If these reporters are accurate, it is disheartening that ICE would attempt to discredit a whistle-blower by shopping her personal information to reporters.”

Saying that his committee takes “allegations of whistleblower retaliation seriously” he “respectfully” requested a boatload of potentially incriminating material:

–all documents that ICE required Johnson to “sign upon termination” but were not legally required, an apparent reference to the confidentiality agreement that she refused to ink

—all documents relating to the decision to remove her

–all documents related to an offer by an ICE public affairs employee to give confidential information about her to the press

–all communications between or among ICE employees regarding media inquiries about her

–all documents that DHS provided to the Inspector General and federal Office of Special Counsel for whistleblowers

–a list of all requests from OSC and from the IG that they have not yet completely fulfilled.

Johnson asked for the material no later than 5 p.m. tomorrow.

Meanwhile, in separate letters to Secretary Johnson and Inspector General John Roth yesterday, he warned the Department not to retaliate against other whistle-blowers who provided crucial information for a committee hearing Tuesday on foreign visa programs.

In his opening statement, Johnson revealed an embarrassing failure of communications between Homeland Security Investigations agents and the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services division one day after the Dec. 2 San Bernardino terrorist attacks.

HSI learned that the man who supplied weaponry for the two attackers was scheduled to attend a Dec. 3 immigration hearing at the USCIS. But when agents arrived at the building determined to detain him USCIS would not allow them to enter.

The suspect never actually showed, but the whole thing made DHS sound like Keystone Cops.

Johnson told Roth and Secretary Johnson his office learned following the hearing ICE was trying to learn who tipped him off about the snafu. “I will not tolerate, nor should DHS tolerate, any effort to retaliate against federal employees for communicating with the Committee or Members of Congress.”

His statement accompanying the letters cited the ICE “track record of retaliating against whistleblowers” like Taylor Johnson. “Those who have the courage to come forward should not be retaliated against.”

In an email that sounded incongruous from a seasoned law enforcement officer, Johnson this morning sounded giddy that the committee publicly called out her tormentor.

“LOL I bet she’s been pretty quiet now. I saw this in high school. Idiots and bullies would run their mouths, but then clam up as soon as someone called them out. Gossips like that have no integrity and are cowards. Is this gal even a cop or is she a desk jockey? How does she even know me?”

“It’s very unusual that a local agent would be discussed at HQ,” added Johnson, whose gofundme.com page  seeks donations for legal costs. “I wonder who gave Jilly all the false gossip.”

In more measured tones, her lawyer, Morris Fischer, welcomed the senator’s actions. “We are very pleased with the efforts of Senator Johnson and the U.S. Senate Committee he chairs,” he said. “They are making a difference in Taylor’s situation which will influence other courageous federal whistleblowers to come forward and report government waste, fraud and abuse.”

Given all the putrescence regularly detailed and exposed here, two refreshing and inspiring things about the Johnson saga are worth noting.

First, the Senate Homeland Security acted nobly without any public pressure. Almost nobody in Washington does the right thing about wrongdoing, unless it is first reported by The New York Times, Washington Post or Politico.

To cite one telling example: congressional Republicans knew about the Planned Parenthood videos weeks before they were finally released. But they said nothing publicly until after the story went viral.

But the Senate Homeland Security Committee immediately investigated the smear campaign against Johnson when they learned of it in the Jan. 29 article about her dismissal. Two staffers called the Gadfly the same morning the article was published to ask about Christensen.

In the ensuing weeks, even as Huffington Post Washington bureau chief Ryan Grim and WaPo reporter Joe Davidson, who actually wrote about Taylor’s testimony, deliberately ignored the new developments, committee staffers made multiple inquiries to DHS officials.

The letter to Secretary Johnson was sent March 4, which was 11 days before New York Times reporter Ron Nixon, who knew about Johnson’s dismissal almost from day one, finally wrote about her.

Also encouraging: Nixon is the first mainstream Washington reporter since WaPo gossip columnist Emily Heil last May to follow-up on an obvious and interesting Daily Caller story the Gadfly brought to their attention — some by me, others not — without first waiting for another major publication to cover it.

On the downside, he did not credit The Daily Caller. Nixon also omitted both the IG smear campaign investigation and Harry Reid’s shenanigans.

But he is not perfect, and neither am I.