ICE chief of staff resigns amid discrimination allegations
(CNN) — The chief of staff to the director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement resigned Saturday, September 1st amid allegations that she helped create a culture of sexual discrimination against men.
Suzanne Barr, chief of staff for ICE Director John Morton, voluntarily stepped down last month and had been on paid leave.
In a letter to Morton, obtained by CNN, Barr called the allegations “unfounded and without any merit” and said she was confident her reputation would be restored.
“In recent weeks, I have been the focus of unfounded allegations designed to destroy my reputation, but of greater concern however, is the threat these allegations represent to the reputation of this agency and the men and women who proudly serve their country by advancing ICE’s mission,” she wrote.
“As such, I feel it is incumbent upon me to take every step necessary to prevent further harm to the agency and to prevent this from further distracting from our critical work.”
ICE spokesman Brian Hale said Morton has received Barr’s resignation.
“We wish her the best of luck in her future endeavors,” he said.
The move comes on the heels of a job discrimination lawsuit filed by the head of the ICE office in New York against the Department of Homeland Security and DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano.
In the suit, New York ICE chief James Hayes claims he was passed over for promotions in favor of less-qualified women, some of whom used to work for Napolitano when she was governor of Arizona. As part of his lawsuit, Hayes cites behavior by Barr in an attempt to prove an alleged culture of sexual discrimination against men, according to Hayes’ lawyer, Morris Fischer of Maryland.
Hayes said Barr “created a frat house-type atmosphere that is targeted to humiliate and intimidate male employees.”
When the lawsuit was filed, ICE spokesman Hale said the allegations were under review and that Barr had voluntarily placed herself on leave pending the outcome of the investigation.
That review is ongoing, according to a federal official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“We are obviously very pleased with the agency’s first step in rectifying this situation by accepting Ms. Barr’s resignation,” said Fischer, Hayes’ attorney. “Now is the time for the agency to move forward and make restitution to the individuals harmed.”
Rep. Peter King, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said Barr’s resignation “raises the most serious questions about management practices and personnel policies at the Department of Homeland Security.”
The committee will continue a review of the case and the personnel practices of the DHS in general.
In his lawsuit, Hayes blames Barr for “sexually offensive behavior.” In one alleged incident, Hayes said Barr called a male employee at a hotel and screamed at him, using crude language to say she wanted to have sex with him. Hayes also said that Barr moved the office contents of three male employees into a men’s bathroom at ICE headquarters in 2009.
After his client’s lawsuit was filed, Fischer said, he was contacted by other federal employees who had heard about Hayes’ claim. They provided affidavits to Hayes and his lawyer alleging more sexually charged comments made by Barr, according to Fischer.
“We’ve been getting calls and e-mails from all over the country from people who want to come forward with information that may be helpful on this case,” the attorney told CNN.
In an affidavit provided to CNN, another ICE employee describes a 2009 meeting in the office of ICE Director Morton, during which employees were discussing personal plans for Halloween. The male employee says he overheard Barr ask a “senior ICE employee” about the size of his genitals. “You’re a sexy mother-(expletive),” she allegedly said.
Over 17 years, Hayes rose through the ranks from Border Patrol agent to a top position at headquarters in charge of Detention and Removal Operations, overseeing a $2.5 billion budget, his lawsuit states. Hayes claims he was removed from that job because of gender discrimination.
He is suing to recover $335,000 in moving costs and lost bonuses he says he incurred when he was transferred in 2009 to New York from Washington. His lawyer says other ICE employees have been reimbursed for similar expenses.
Hayes’ lawsuit also claims he faced retaliation after threatening to file an Equal Opportunity Claim against DHS and cites six internal investigations that were all unfounded.
However, all but one of those investigations against him involving complaints by fellow employees were initially filed before Napolitano took office in 2008.
In court documents, Hayes said the complaints were reviewed after he began complaining.
DHS has filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit and denied allegations of discrimination and retaliation. Its attorneys argued that the “unfounded allegations” made against Barr are “irrelevant” and an “attempt to embarrass or harass senior government officials.”
According to a federal official who defended ICE as an agency of “dedicated law enforcement professionals,” Hayes’ lawsuit is filled with “false and unsubstantiated” allegations against Barr and other DHS employees.
The allegations “do not align with the fact that Mr. Hayes has routinely held high-ranking assignments, including his current position as head of ICE’s second-largest field office in New York, the official added.
CNN’s Ross Levitt and Carol Cratty contributed to this report.