WOLCOTT — The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is conducting an internal investigation, according to Wayne County District Attorney Richard Healy, after a local newspaper said it traced the source of several offensive comments made on its Web site to the Internet Protocol, or IP, addresses of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, more commonly referred to as border patrol.
Wayne County Star Editor Louise Hoffman Broach said that several comments she deemed racist and as personal attacks were posted to the paper’s Web site in response to an article she wrote about allegations of racial profiling in connection with a June 12 border-patrol stop on Lake Ontario near Sodus Point. Noting that the paper has a right to determine what content appears on its site, Hoffman Broach said that she and another staff member worked to remove some of the most offensive posts, using the posters’ IP addresses — which are unique, numeric identifiers of computers connected to the Internet — to ban them from posting further comments.
“When we went to ban them, it was to our shock and surprise that we tracked them back to border patrol,” she said, adding that the IP addresses specifically originated from a border-patrol computer server at the Department of Homeland Security and ended in bp.dhs.gov.
Hoffman Broach said she notified DA Richard Healy of the postings. He then passed on the information to federal officials.
Following Healy’s calls to the U.S. Attorney’s office, the investigation was referred to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General in the Western District, Hoffman Broach said. Amy Tomlinson, a spokeswoman for the inspector general’s office, told El Mensajero Cat√≥lico that “it’s our policy that we don’t confirm or deny any of our investigations.”
Healy, however, said that he spoke with his contact at the U.S. Attorney’s office the first week of August and was told the matter is being investigated as a personnel issue.
“Unlawful use of government equipment … would be a violation of their (homeland security’s) work policies,” he said. “It’s not a criminal matter.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection policy on the ethical conduct and responsibilities of employees, which can be found at www.cbp.gov/linkhandler/cgov/careers/senior_exec/ethics/std_of_conduct.ctt/std_of_conduct.doc, stipulates that “employees will not make abusive, derisive, profane, or harassing statements or gestures, or engage in any other conduct, evidencing hatred or invidious prejudice to or about another person or group on account of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, age, or disability.”
Subsequent to the newspaper’s June story about the border-patrol stop, U.S. Congressman Daniel Maffei had discussions with homeland security officials in Washington about whether protocol on enforcement of immigration laws is being properly followed in the Sodus area, according to Abigail Gardner, a spokeswoman for Maffei. The congressman also met with a group of advocates at Church of the Epiphany in Sodus last month to get to know members of the community, Gardner said.
According to Hoffman Broach’s June 16 news story that drew the allegedly offensive Web-site postings, Savannah farmer Robert Norris took visiting family members of an employee — who is a U.S. citizen born in Mexico — on his boat for a Sunday cruise on Lake Ontario. Norris told the Star that border-patrol officers stopped the boat in Sodus Point saying that it held too many passengers, which he denied. He also told the Star that only the two non-Hispanics were not asked to produce identification. According to the story, several of the boat’s passengers who are Mexican natives were detained, and all but one were subsequently released.
Hoffman Broach said that the story had fallen into the newspaper’s lap, as Staff Photographer Bill Huff happened to be picnicking with his family in Sodus Point and witnessed the incident. Huff began taking photos, and officers reluctantly allowed him to continue doing so after he showed them his press credentials, she said.
Hoffman Broach said that after the article appeared on the paper’s Web site, she received a call from a border-patrol officer who was looking for a copy of the story and photos. She told him both were available on the paper’s Web site, but he informed her that the site’s Internet service had been disrupted. It took a few days to fix the site, Hoffman Broach said, and when it once again became operational, she noticed inappropriate comments had been made about the story.
“As soon as it went back up, there were horrendously disgusting posts on the Web site,” she said. “People are entitled to their opinions but (some) were personally attacking me and some extremely racist.”
Hoffman Broach added that the inspector general’s office asked for a copy of all the posts that were traced back to the border-patrol IP addresses. In responding to the request, the newspaper discovered that earlier postings from border-patrol IP addresses also had been posted on the site, she remarked. The inspector general’s office also asked that she not write an article about the investigation, but she refused to go along with that request, Hoffman Broach noted.
The case posed an unusual situation for the newspaper, which focuses more on community news, she said.
Yet, Hoffman Broach added that “these things need to see the light of day. When we find ourselves in the middle of a controversy like this, we have an obligation to report it. You can’t let yourself be railroaded.”
Meanwhile, controvery about the Wayne County Star‘s Web site has not slowed down border-patrol enforcement in Sodus, observed Dr. John “Lory” Ghertner, who last fall organized a Church Watch group at Church of the Epiphany to help migrants get to Mass. He said border-patrol officers were seen Aug. 2 on Route 104, just blocks away from the church.
Ghertner also said that Norris, the farmer involved in the boating incident, is working with Ghertner’s group on a potential racial-profiling lawsuit.
“The farmer was accused of taking 11 people in his boat, (which was) certified for 12. He was then accused of trafficking,” said Ghertner, although Norris was not charged with any wrongdoing. “His boat was legally registered and had the proper safety equipment.”
Such anecdotal evidence as that gathered by advocates like Ghertner’s Church Watch group is difficult to use as a gauge that border-patrol enforcement is on the rise, noted Gardner. But she noted that the issue did come up during the campaign for Congressman Maffei, who has been in office since January.
“If people’s rights are being infringed upon, that’s a problem,” Gardner said.
Stepped-up enforcement also poses economic ramifications for Wayne County farmers and apple growers, Gardner noted. Maffei has met with local farmers who tell him laborers do not want to come to the area because they fear they’ll be harassed, she said.
“It’s certainly not good to hear business owners say, ‘It’s increasingly difficult for me to do business here in an already tough economy,’“ Gardner remarked.