A U.S. immigration official accused in a federal report of hindering law enforcement agents seeking a suspect in the San Bernardino terror attack and then lying about it has been nominated for a prestigious award – for telling her employees to stay calm and fetching one who was eating lunch in his car.
FoxNews.com reported in June that Irene Martin, who heads the San Bernardino U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office, had been nominated for the Department of Homeland Security “Award for Valor.” But the department refused to say what Martin had done to earn consideration for an award previously given to government employees who saved people from sinking ships and burning cars and confronted gun-wielding criminals.
The answer was only revealed through a Freedom of Information Act request. As the Dec. 2, 2015, attack unfolded a mile and a half away, Martin “warned [her] employees to be very careful and to be vigil (sic) about their surroundings,” according to the nominating petition.
When Martin learned that one member of her staff was sitting in his car after returning from lunch, a security guard refused to go and get him, saying the office was under lockdown.
“[Director] Martin took it upon herself to walk out to the parking lot, locate the employee and escort him back inside where he would be safer,” the petition stated, adding that she also soothed members of the public who were temporarily stranded in the building.
“Martin’s actions on that terrible day demonstrated not only her professionalism and exceptional leadership, but also her compassion and caring for her employees and the public we serve,” read the nomination.
A section on the nominating form for listing “Special Honors and Awards for the past 5 years” was left blank.
“Basically, Ms. Martin followed standard operating procedures for an emergency situation in the area by addressing the staff, suspending programs and sending everyone home early – it’s what thousands of supervisors around San Bernardino must have been doing that day,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of Policy Studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based research institute.
The nomination was made by Martin’s supervisors in Washington on March 3, just over a week before the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General John Roth launched his investigation into Martin’s behavior the day after the attack. Roth’s probe found that Martin blocked five armed Department of Homeland Security agents seeking the man authorities now say supplied the firepower in the deadly attack. The report also said she lied to investigators about her actions.
Vaughan said she suspects the award nomination was put forward to give cover to Martin, who may have broken the law.
“It certainly appears that the agency is trying to distract from that misconduct by puffing up this incident into an award nomination,” Vaughan said. “The agency leaders appear to believe that egregious poor judgment and a serious act of obstruction can be canceled out by another good deed. It doesn’t work that way.”
The DHS award is described as “the highest departmental recognition for extraordinary acts of valor by an employee or group, occurring while on or off duty” and is reserved for “those who have demonstrated extraordinary courage in a highly dangerous, life-threatening situation or emergency under extreme stress and involving a specific act of valor, such as saving another person’s life or property.”
Martin’s initial actions occurred as Tashfeen Malik and Syed Farook killed 14 and wounded 22 at the Inland Regional Center, a social services facility where Farook’s county co-workers were having a Christmas party. Authorities believe Enrique Marquez, who had an appointment with Martin's staff the next day when the authorities showed up, gave the jihadist couple the guns used in the attack.
Martin’s role in the next day’s turf war was exposed by unidentified whistle-blowers who went to Senate Homeland Security Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who then requested the Inspector General’s investigation.
Roth’s report found Martin improperly hindered the work of five armed agents on site just 24 hours after the attack. It noted DHS agents were sent to the USCIS building to arrest Marquez, who authorities were frantically trying to track down. Marquez, it turned out, had not shown up for his scheduled appointment at the USCIS building, but Martin kept agents waiting 30 minutes before meeting with them, and another hour before she turned over the USCIS file on Marquez.
Marquez was eventually arrested and is being held on charges related to supplying the guns as well as marriage fraud.
Martin also lied to the Inspector General’s investigators, according to the June 6 report, about her role in what has been characterized as a turf battle. Lying to federal investigators is a felony and can result in dismissal and criminal charges.
“We concluded that the USCIS Field Office Director at the San Bernardino office improperly delayed … agents from conducting a lawful and routine law enforcement action,” the report stated. “We have also concluded that the Field Office Director was not candid with OIG investigators during her interview.”
Malia Zimmerman is an award-winning investigative reporter focusing on crime, homeland security, illegal immigration crime, terrorism and political corruption. Follow her on twitter at @MaliaMZimmerman