Watchdog says senior Homeland official broke no laws

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Posted: Mar 26, 2015 2:59 PM
Watchdog says senior Homeland official broke no laws

WASHINGTON (AP) — A senior Obama administration official violated agency ethics policies but did not break any laws when he intervened in three visa cases involving foreign investors with ties to prominent Democrats, a government watchdog told Congress Thursday.

The Homeland Security Department's now deputy secretary used his post as head of the department's immigration benefits-processing agency to expedite the paperwork in a program long riddled with problems and backlogs, the department's inspector general, John Roth, said.

Alejandro Mayorkas' interventions in the three cases helped key Democrats whose states and clients stood to benefit from these permits to live and work in the U.S., which pave the way for job creation and economic investments.

The visa applications Mayorkas is accused of meddling with were part of the U.S. government's investor-visa program, known as EB-5. It allows foreigners to obtain visas to live permanently in the U.S. with their spouse and children if they invest $500,000 to $1 million in projects or businesses that create jobs for American citizens. Approved investors can become legal permanent residents after two years and later can become U.S. citizens.

The agency, which awards up to 10,000 foreign investor visas every year, is not supposed to give preferential treatment to anyone. Mayorkas drafted the ethics policy himself.

"In each of these three instances, but for Mr. Mayorkas' intervention, the matter would have been decided differently," Roth told members of the House Homeland Security Committee Thursday.

Roth released a 99-page report earlier this week that relied on interviews with more than 15 whistleblowers, which he said was an unusually high number. Most of the whistleblowers asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation.

Likely Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton's brother, Anthony, was one of the Democrats Roth said Mayorkas helped by speeding the processing of visa requests for investors in Rodham's financing company.

Agency whistleblowers told investigators there were similar requests from other companies, but Mayorkas did not intervene.

Mayorkas has denied he influenced any agency decisions for political purposes. He disagreed with the inspector general's findings, but promised to learn from the findings. He was not specific about what he could learn.

Rodham's company and others like it act as middlemen and recruit investors to help fund a variety of projects. In Rodham's case, he was securing financing for a green-energy car company that Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe was involved with. McAuliffe cut ties with the car company in 2012.

Roth's report did not suggest that any of the prominent Democrats did anything wrong in asking for help from the department. Plenty of others asked for similar help cutting through the bureaucracy of the program, but only prominent Democratic fundraisers appeared to get it, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul said.

"The list of individuals involved in the allegations raised in the report reads like an A-list political powerhouses," the Texas Republican said.

The other two cases involved a Hollywood investment program and an investment effort in Nevada that had ties to former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, respectively.

McCaul pledged Thursday to invite Mayorkas to tell lawmakers "his side of the story." He did not say when that would be.

The Obama administration has defended Mayorkas, a longtime Democrat who served on President Barack Obama's transition team after his 2008 election and was U.S. attorney in California under President Bill Clinton. Mayorkas was confirmed in 2013 as the department's deputy secretary, despite Republicans' concerns about the ongoing investigation into his involvement in foreign investor visa decisions.

Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, called on Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson Thursday to hold Mayorkas accountable. Grassley did not go so far as to ask for Mayorkas' firing. Grassley was a vocal opponent of Mayorkas' nomination, saying at the time he should not be promoted while the inspector generals' investigation was ongoing.

On Wednesday, the White House said the inspector general's report highlighted problems with that particular visa program, and not with Mayorkas, who was trying to fix improve it.

The investigation was first reported by The Associated Press days before Mayorkas' July 2013 Senate confirmation hearing.

The inspector general's conclusions cast doubt on whether the Homeland Security Department withheld embarrassing internal files the AP had sought under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act as part of its own investigation nearly two years ago - and instead released records that indicated no wrongdoing. The inspector general's report cited emails that were never turned over to the AP.

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Follow Alicia A. Caldwell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/acaldwellap