Embattled customs head digs deep for agency funding

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Guam – Acting Director Eric Palacios insists he’s ready to continue leading Guam Customs & Quarantine, regardless of any doubt facing him or his agency. In the midst of tight government-wide budget constraints and questions about Palacios’ qualifications and character, funding for border protection is vastly inadequate to meet the rush of drugs and contraband zinging through security and drifting onto island shores.

Several discomfiting questions were posed by an agency chief at this morning’s hearing. And he answered each just as quickly as he  ticked it off.

Does the Customs & Quarantine Agency maintain adequate 24/7 airport operations? No.

Sufficient coverage at Andersen Air Force Base, cargo intakes, or public marinas? No.

How about adequate inspection fees and inspection counters? No and no.

According to that customs official, the list goes “on and on,” and “we do need help to provide us some latitude.” But how much latitude is the question. For instance, there are restrictions against the use of federal funding for airport inspections being used for commercial seaport inspections, no matter how stretched local resources may become.

Acting Director Palacios confirmed that the legislature has certified and approved $14.9 million for his agency after Customs & Quarantine asked for $20 million-plus. The critical shortages come at a time when pounds of cocaine are mysteriously washing ashore, and ports of entry and local post offices remain vulnerable due to lack of funding for enforcement.

Nevertheless, Palacios and his officers said they’re doing all they can to work around shortfalls by teaming with federal agents to help stem the tide.

“We’re working more closely with our federal partners to the task forces that we have in place,” Palacios said. “We have dedicated resources in the form of task force officers that are embedded in a number of these task forces, and the intelligence that we gather and access specifically at the U.S. Postal Service – these are benefits that we realize immediately.”

Palacios told Pacific News Center that Customs is in the process of generating an operations plan to step up enforcement at the Port of Guam, and creatively scheduling canine units for regular inspection of high-risk flights.  As much as he’d like to continue expanding interdiction, the gear and personnel will require more money. So senators are now asking the agency for a supplemental budget to cover the cost of manpower, information technology, and fleet vehicles.

Meanwhile, there is growing hope that newly introduced legislation will make up some of the difference. In an official letter to senatorial Appropriations Chairman BJ Cruz dated yesterday, Palacios writes:

“In recent days, we have come to learn of your office’s introduction of Bill 293-34, which seeks to increase the Customs, Agriculture and Quarantine Inspection Services Charge from $8.29 to $20 per passenger, and with an effectivity date of Oct. 1, 2018.”

CQA’s understanding of the rationale for introducing this bill is that ‘[drugs] are tearing this community apart,’ and there exists a need to ‘fortify our borders and prevent drug-related crimes before they start.’ We do not disagree with either of these statements.”

The task at hand aside, it’s no secret that Palacios’ reputation has suffered pitfalls entering the helm of the interdiction agency.  Approached by PNC about how his record might weather a confirmation hearing, Palacios defended his record, should he face senators again for approval as agency director before the end of the Calvo Tenorio Administration seven months from now.

Accusations that he sexually harassed a coworker in the Calvo Tenorio Adminstration resurfaced recently when former Cal-Ten front office staffer Troy Toves told news media the administration tried to cover the incident up. “It’s false,” Palacios said. “There was no sexual harassment.”

Not long before he was appointed Acting Director, Palacios was implicated in the importation of banned butterfly knives from the Philippines into Guam. PNC asked him whether he ever got his knives back.  “No, that’s gonna be destroyed. That’s done, that’s a dead issue.”

PNC also asked Palacios whether these conflicts in any way render him unqualified to hold the title of Acting Director or Director of the Guam Customs and Quarantine Agency. “I don’t believe it does,” he said.

There have also been assertions that Palacios lacks the law enforcement and border protection background to lead Customs & Quarantine effectively. But none of that seems to be stopping him from doing his job. Customs & Quarantine officers showed deference and respect to his authority as their civilian acting director during this morning’s budget hearing. One thing never in doubt is the acting director’s fierce loyalty to the Calvo Tenorio Administration and its fierce loyalty to him.

We asked Palacios whether he thinks it’s appropriate to consider resigning before his confirmation. “No, and the reason why I’m not going to consider resigning is that I made a commitment to every officer and every civilian in the department that I would do my absolute best for as long as I’m able to. And so when when I joined this administration seven and a half years ago, I made a commitment to the people of Guam that I would serve this community very honorably.”

Acting Director Palacios says Customs and Quarantine looks forward to working with Appropriations Chairman Cruz and all local senators through this important budget process for the agency.