WASHINGTON – At least three employees at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement have filed serious complaints alleging that a senior Obama administration political appointee and longtime aide to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano used inappropriate sexual behavior around them, according to court records and a letter describing the claims submitted to a congressional oversight committee.
The complaints are related to a sexual discrimination and retaliation lawsuit filed in May by a senior ICE agent. They accuse Suzanne Barr, the agency's chief of staff, of sexually inappropriate behavior toward employees. Barr is on leave while the allegations are being investigated, a spokesman for the agency said. Repeated attempts by The Associated Press for more than one week to reach Barr for comment by phone and email have been unsuccessful.
Barr is accused of telling a male subordinate he was "sexy" during an office party and asking a personal question about his anatomy. She is separately accused of offering to perform a sex act with a male subordinate while on business travel in Bogotá, Colombia. She is also accused of calling a male subordinate from her hotel room and offering to perform a sex act. The names of two of the employees were censored in affidavits reviewed by the AP.
There were no prior complaints about Barr, according to a homeland security official who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter. Barr was one of Napolitano's first appointments after she became secretary in 2009.
ICE would not say whether the agency's director, John Morton, witnessed any inappropriate behavior by Barr in the three years he's worked with her. Morton traveled with Barr 65 times between May 2009 and February 2012, according to documents obtained by the AP under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act.
Two employees came forward with their complaints after New York's most senior ICE agent filed a sexual discrimination and retaliation lawsuit. James T. Hayes Jr., described a "frat house" atmosphere at ICE designed to humiliate male employees under Barr's leadership. Hayes, who filed the complaint in May, is asking for more than $4 million that would cover compensation he believes he is owed for relocation expenses and financial losses associated with his transfer as well as the full salary and benefits he would have earned until he was eligible to retire.
Hayes' lawyer, Morris Fischer of Silver Spring, Md., has declined to comment.
The Justice Department is seeking to dismiss Hayes' lawsuit on the basis that he did not state a claim for retaliation.
There were 10 sexual harassment claims filed with ICE in 2011, a significant increase over the two cases filed in each of the previous two years, according to equal employment data from the agency. DHS said none of the cases were substantiated. Also in 2011, Morton issued an anti-fraternization policy that said supervisors were not to have sexual or romantic relationships with subordinates. Any such relationships, the policy said, should be immediately reported.
Brian Hale, an ICE spokesman, said the agency has a "zero tolerance sexual harassment policy" and that all such allegations are promptly investigated.
Despite the complaints, 24 senior ICE agents across the country sent Morton a letter of support Thursday that alluded to media reports of Hayes' case.
Barr went on leave after the New York Post reported a story on Hayes' complaint earlier this month. The additional employees came forward with their allegations around the same time.
Barr, a 1995 graduate of University of Arizona, began working for Napolitano in 2004 when Napolitano was governor of Arizona. Before that, Barr worked for Arizona Republican Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl.
ICE's office of professional responsibility and the Homeland Security Department's inspector general are investigating the allegations against Barr, Hale said.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.