Federal detention center hired guards without background checks

SEATTLE — A privately run immigration lockup in Tacoma hired nearly 100 security guards without background checks, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement didn’t catch the practice for two years, court documents show.

Sylvia Wong, an administrator in charge of hiring at the Northwest Detention Center, pleaded guilty this week in federal court in Tacoma to one count of making a false statement, for lying to investigators. In her plea agreement, she admitted that soon after starting work in November 2005, she began hiring guards without background checks “because of the pressure she felt to get security personnel hired at the NWDC as quickly as possible.”

ICE auditors discovered early this year that 92 guards had been hired without the checks. The agency acknowledges that some of the guards have been fired following subsequent background checks, but won’t say how many.

“In response to this investigation we have implemented a multitiered vetting process … so that no contractor or federal employee has sole responsibility to process and approve employment documents,” ICE spokeswoman Lorie Dankers said Thursday. “We have taken proactive steps to prevent this from happening again.”

The Northwest Detention Center opened in 2004 and holds about 1,000 people accused of immigration violations, mainly detainees from Alaska, Oregon and Washington. It’s run by the for-profit, Florida-based GEO Group Inc., with yearly reviews to ensure the facility meets ICE standards.

A GEO Group spokesman has not returned several inquiries from the AP about Wong’s case, the latest on Thursday. Her lawyer did not immediately return a call.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicholas Brown said any pressure that Wong felt to hire guards quickly was self-imposed and did not come from higher-ups. If anything, he said, she was mostly trying “to make people happy.”

When guards are hired at the detention center, they are supposed to undergo a preliminary background check. If they pass, they are given “entry on duty” forms allowing them to begin work pending a more thorough check, which can take several months to more than a year.

The plea agreement said that when Wong hired the guards, she fabricated “entry on duty” forms, allowing them to start work without any background check.

In February, ICE discovered that the guards had been hired without the checks and searched Wong’s office. The next month, when agents questioned her, she insisted she had not manufactured the forms — hence, the “false statement” charge against her.

Brown said he did not know precisely how many of the guards Wong hired had been fired, but characterized the number as relatively small.

Asked what the number was, Dankers said, “I’m going to decline comment on that.” Asked why, she replied, “Because I am.”

She later called back to say policies prohibited her from discussing staffing levels — even though the number of fired guards has nothing to do with current staffing.

According to the plea agreement, the detention center has up to 200 security, administrative, medical, food service and maintenance workers.

Wong faces up to six months when she is sentenced in February.

On Thursday, ICE announced that 10,602 aliens had been deported from Alaska, Oregon and Washington in fiscal 2008 — a one-year record for the region and a jump of more than 35 percent from the previous year.

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