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Halloween party haunts immigration chief

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Times Staff Writer

House Democrats on Tuesday accused the head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Julie L. Myers, of trying to cover up events related to a Halloween party last year where she gave a prize for “most original” costume to an employee in blackface and prison garb.

A 22-page report issued late Tuesday charged that Myers, then the agency’s acting director, made “a coordinated effort to conceal the circumstances surrounding the party” in an effort to squelch the issue before her Senate confirmation vote.

“There was a deliberate attempt to cover up the fact that pictures were taken but ordered destroyed,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, which issued the report.

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Officials at the agency, part of the Department of Homeland Security, vigorously denied the allegations. “To insinuate that she tried to cover something up is completely false,” said spokeswoman Kelly Nantel. “Ms. Myers accepted responsibility for this incident, apologized for her bad judgment and has obviously moved forward, as has the agency.”

The fracas underscores long-standing anger among African American lawmakers who say there is a lack of diversity and racial sensitivity within the Homeland Security Department.

That tension, inflamed by the Halloween incident, has triggered remarkably prickly exchanges with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. Hearings on diversity in the department are planned for next month.

The photos came to light in February after CNN submitted a Freedom of Information Act request. When the agency released pictures to the network, it also provided copies to Thompson’s committee.

One photo shows a smiling Myers, wearing a gray suit and blue blouse, beside a large man in jailhouse stripes and a dreadlock wig. His face, which is obscured in the photo, has been darkened with makeup.

Reports of the party, held at the agency headquarters, surfaced almost immediately. An employee anonymously faxed the Homeland Security Committee on Nov. 4, complaining that Myers and other officials had given a prize to a “Caucasian male attorney” wearing “what appeared to be a prison fatigue with dreadlocks on his head and blackened face makeup.”

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The report set out a chronology: On Oct. 31, after the party was over, Myers ordered all photos destroyed. On Nov. 1, she learned of employee complaints. On Nov. 2, she apologized to employees. On Nov. 8, she met with Thompson.

Nantel said nothing in the panel’s report was new, adding that Myers has the support of an association of African American employees and “has been 100% transparent and honest about this incident from the beginning.”

Thompson said: “I was misled. I was told there were no pictures. I’m sure people were embarrassed, but you are obligated to tell the truth.”

Anger among some African American lawmakers about diversity in the Homeland Security Department led to a testy exchange with Chertoff during a March hearing. Lawmakers asked Chertoff’s staff to stand. About 10 people stood.

Rep. Melvin Watt (D-N.C.) pointed out that all the staff members were white men. “Please reassure me that your staff is more diverse than that,” he asked Chertoff, who seemed taken aback.

“That is definitely the case,” Chertoff said, as other lawmakers looked visibly skeptical.

According to the department, about 16.5% of its employees are Latinos and 14.5% are African Americans, compared with government-wide figures of about 7.3% Latinos and 17% African Americans.

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Animosity toward Myers also is fueled by lawmakers’ concerns about her fitness for the position. President Bush named her to head the agency in early 2006, bypassing lawmakers’ concerns about the competence of the Homeland Security Department’s political appointees.

Myers had no immigration expertise and little management experience. She had worked for Chertoff at the Justice Department, her husband was his chief of staff, and her uncle was the departing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Confirmation hearings were held before the 2007 Halloween party, but when accounts of the event came to light, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) delayed the final vote. Myers apologized, told lawmakers the photos had been destroyed and was confirmed in December. She was unaware, her spokesmen said, that the photos could be forensically restored.

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nicole.gaouette@latimes.com

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