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FBI, federal agents see cases hampered, lives rattled as shutdown continues

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 1/18/2019 Devlin Barrett, Mark Berman
U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents participate in a test deployment during a readiness exercise at the San Ysidro port of entry in San Diego last week. Officials worry about the strain federal agents are facing as their second straight missed paycheck looms because of the partial government shutdown. © Jorge Duenes/Reuters U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents participate in a test deployment during a readiness exercise at the San Ysidro port of entry in San Diego last week. Officials worry about the strain federal agents are facing as their second straight missed paycheck looms because of the partial government shutdown.

At federal law enforcement agencies from the FBI to the DEA to Customs and Border Protection and others, the frustration about having missed a paycheck last week because of the partial government shutdown is growing into fear and anger, as there are signs that the lack of funds is affecting ongoing investigations.

The government shutdown, already the longest in American history, has dragged down morale across federal agencies as tens of thousands of workers are required to show up with no idea when their paychecks will resume.

Among agents and prosecutors, the concerns are twofold: anger about the lack of pay and alarm that the shutdown is hindering more and more investigative work.

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Most travel and training among the law enforcement agencies has been canceled. Many law enforcement officials said some undercover cases, including corruption probes, have been stymied in recent weeks because supervisors feel they cannot approve travel or cash for those operations. Investigators have been told there is no money to pay informants in some cases, or to covertly buy drugs, or to obtain cash for other criminal investigations, according to law enforcement officials.

“The lack of funding is impacting agents’ ability to travel to forward their cases,” said Thomas O’Connor, president of the FBI Agents Association. “As we go forward, those funds are not going to be available and in some cases are not available now.”

Senior law enforcement officials are increasingly concerned that the anger among the rank and file is growing exponentially and could skyrocket next week if a second straight paycheck is skipped. Those who are charged with protecting the nation from criminals and terrorists could be facing enormous external financial stressors as they try to stay focused on their work.

“This isn’t PlayStation, this is people’s lives we’re talking about,” said one law enforcement official, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly about the shutdown. “It’s awful.”

A veteran prosecutor in a U.S. attorney’s office said she has stomach pains from the anxiety of not getting paid. The prosecutor said she is her household’s sole source of income.

“I was due for a mammogram,” the prosecutor said. “I’m not at risk, there’s no reason to think anything’s wrong, but I put it off because I don’t want to pay the co-payment . . . It’s incredibly frustrating and enraging and I’m trying not to think about it.”

But it is difficult to ignore, she said. The stress keeps her up at night. One of her children “came to me in tears,” the prosecutor said, unsure if the family could afford to pay for an upcoming school function.

“That’s one of those real consequences that people don’t think about,” the prosecutor said. “I’ve got a kid who’s stressing out about money. That’s obviously upsetting. We are okay for a while, but we shouldn’t have to live like that.”

The prosecutor said she is contemplating leaving government work for something more stable in the private sector. “And I hate that,” she said.

The spouse of one federal law enforcement official said their family has been eating mostly rice and pasta since the shutdown began, but a relative sent them a grocery store gift card so they could buy protein. The family expects to miss at least one more paycheck, and if they miss two more, they plan to borrow money from relatives.

“People do these jobs to protect the community, because they believe in the mission,” the spouse said. “The public views this as a consumer issue, how it directly affects them. Does anyone care out there that we are not being paid? The answer seems to be ‘no.’”

The FBI has to be able to continue ongoing investigations and open new ones, so it remains open for business amid the shutdown, the department said. © Jose Luis Magana/AP The FBI has to be able to continue ongoing investigations and open new ones, so it remains open for business amid the shutdown, the department said.

At FBI field offices, some employees are discussing setting up food banks for employees if the shutdown lasts much longer.

Adding to the frustration are agency rules making it difficult — and in some cases impossible — for federal agents to get second jobs. Historically, FBI supervisors usually reject requests from agents or employees for outside employment, fearing such work could raise ethical concerns. In recent days, FBI headquarters has changed course, urging field offices to approve such requests as quickly as possible, according to an official familiar with the matter. An FBI spokeswoman declined to comment.

At the Secret Service, agents working to protect President Trump and Vice President Pence are among those not being paid for their work. But other than Trump’s recent trip to McAllen, Tex., they are largely staying put in Washington, dramatically reducing the travel demands on the agents.

For some, the uncertainty about the shutdown is the most difficult part. Without knowing when pay might resume, people are having to make difficult decisions about what things to cut and how long their savings might last.

“We started talking about short-term plans, medium-term plans, long-term plans,” said Cher Muzyk, 44, of Nokesville, Va. Her husband is an attorney doing national security work for the federal government. “Do we use credit cards? Do we take loans? What do we cut back on? We need to hoard cash right now. Our estimate is . . . we can pay our bills for about two months.”

Nathan Catura, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, which represents more than 26,000 officers in dozens of agencies, said he worries about the strain these financial concerns are putting on agents in the field.

“My biggest concern is there’s going to be an agent who is not going to be focused on his job,” Catura said. “He’s going to be out on the street doing some enforcement of something, and he’s going to get hurt. Heaven forbid there’s an agent who gets killed because his mind isn’t on the job.”

Catura added: “Other law enforcement people I continue to speak to, they share the same concerns. The longer this drags out, the more I’m concerned that something’s going to happen.”

Law enforcement officials throughout the federal government have been deemed essential during the partial shutdown, which means they have to continue working without paychecks, doing everything from prosecuting federal crimes to conducting criminal investigations.

They will receive pay for that work when the government reopens, but there is little indication of when that might happen amid a political standoff between Democrats in Congress and Trump’s demand that Congress include money to build a border wall in its budget.

“The level of frustration, I don’t know how to articulate it,” Catura said. “It’s so high right now . . . People don’t want to come into work. They’re not being paid and they don’t want to come in, and I can’t blame them.”

The longer the shutdown continues, the more these people feel like pawns, Catura said. He also worries that the shutdown could hinder recruitment of good agents down the line, because some might have second thoughts about leaving the stability of state or local law enforcement jobs.

“Here we are, these guys are the men and women of federal law enforcement, on the job protecting our country, doing what they’re supposed to do, risking their lives every day, and they’re not getting paid,” he said. “That’s a tough pill to swallow, especially when your mortgage payment is coming . . . your rent is due, you have child support, you have to put food on the table.”

According to the Justice Department, most of its employees were deemed essential during the shutdown because “a significant portion of the Department’s mission relates to the safety of human life and the protection of property.” In a breakdown of employees deemed essential and exempted from being furloughed, the department described about three-quarters of them as “necessary to protect life and property.”

The department said employees remaining on the job include those involved in everything from counterterrorism issues and patrolling federal prisons to conducting gun background checks and narcotics investigations. The National Security Division will continue investigations and prosecutions as part of its broad range of duties encompassing terrorism and espionage issues, the Justice Department said in a plan dated Jan. 10.

The FBI has to be able to continue ongoing investigations and open new ones, so it remains open for business, and “all FBI agents and support personnel in the field” have been deemed essential, according to the DOJ document. That includes “nearly all federal employees supporting the National Instant Criminal Background Check System,” which conducts background checks for gun purchases.

Drug Enforcement Administration agents in the field and some personnel at headquarters are staying on, as are agents scattered among Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives field divisions. U.S. Marshals, tasked with a range of duties, from protecting judges to apprehending fugitives, are still on the job.

The Department of Homeland Security said in its shutdown procedures that among those it deemed essential are law enforcement officers protecting lives and property, a list that includes the U.S. Secret Service and authorities involved in inspecting cargo at ports of entry and “maintaining law enforcement operations, including drug and illegal alien interdiction.”

mark.berman@washpost.com

devlin.barrett@washpost.com

Carol D. Leonnig contributed to this report.

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