Today’s Must Read

April 9, 2008 10:00 a.m.

In the annals of public service, it was not a high point. Last Halloween, at a fundraising event for charitable organizations held at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Headquarters Building, they held a costume contest. And the winner was a white lawyer dressed in dreadlocks and prison stripes.

When it came time to present himself to the judges, amng them Julie Myers, the chief of ICE, he said “I’m a Jamaican detainee from Krome — obviously, I’ve escaped.” Krome is an ICE Detention facility in Miami that is mostly filled with Jamaican, Haitian and Latin American detainees. The judges, Myers among them, laughed, according to a report (pdf) issued yesterday by the House Committee on Homeland Security. Later, Myers posed with the winner:

At some point later that day, Myers apparently realized that others might not appreciate the fun of the costume and ordered that the pictures be destroyed. In a letter to Congress in November of 2007 (after news of the costume broke), Myers explained that she “was not aware at the time of the contest that the employee disguised his skin color,” but that she believed “that it was inappropriate for me to recognize any individual wearing an escaped prisoner costume.”

So on that same day, she ordered the pictures deleted, according to yesterday’s report, as part of “”a coordinated effort to conceal the circumstances surrounding the party.” Myers’ nomination was still pending before the Senate at that time. The committee report is titled “The ICE Halloween Party: Trick, Treat, or Cover-up?” The committee appears to come down on the cover-up side of the question.

As for Myers, her spokesperson tells The New York Times that trying to curb the damage wasn’t the same thing as a cover-up:

Kelly A. Nantel, an agency spokeswoman, confirmed Tuesday that Ms. Myers had ordered that the photographs be deleted, but said she had done so because she belatedly realized that the costume was inappropriate and that it would be offensive if the photos were included in any agency publications.

But Ms. Nantel said that Ms. Myers never tried to cover up that the event had occurred. In fact, Ms. Myers sent a message to all agency employees two days after the party acknowledging that “a few of the costumes were inappropriate.”

“To suggest she somehow coordinated a cover-up is absolutely false,” Ms. Nantel said.

Rather unfortunately for Myers, the pictures were not completely deleted and were restored. They were released to CNN in February as a result of a FOIA request.

In any case, the committee has used the occurrence to point out the lack of diversity at ICE and DHS more broadly, noting that ICE has zero African-American senior executives and 28 whites. It’s a point that lawmakers were able to demonstrate when Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff last visited the committee:

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.

Hearings on diversity in the department are planned for next month.

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