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Sources say the morale problem at the Phoenix ICE office has turned agents into some of the biggest goldbrickers in law enforcement.

One former Phoenix agent says some of his co-workers would stay home and play their XBoxes, rib each other for failing to come to the office in the morning and get away with doing the minimal amount of work after they did show up. Desk-jockey supervisors, he says, would look the other way while criminal immigrants ran amok.

The agent says a common saying around the Phoenix office was: "Big cases, big problems; medium cases, medium problems; no cases, no problems."

Former Customs agent Lee Morgan blames the INS culture for the malaise.

An honored law officer, Vietnam veteran and author, Morgan is "one of the best agents Customs ever had," according to former ICE spokesman Russell Ahr.

Morgan is also one of ICE's most outspoken critics.

"The whole thing is a sham," he says.

After ICE formed, it became apparent the INS folks were a bunch of slackers, he says.

A meeting was held at the Tucson ICE office to ask the former INS people to consider working later in the day.

"An INS guy said, 'We don't do that, we don't work after five o'clock, and we don't work weekends,'" Morgan says.

Having spent some of his 36-year career in the INS, Morgan knew it was true.

"We had adopted the failed practices and policies of an abolished agency," says Morgan, who retired in 2005.

Tim Mason, a DPS officer and money-laundering expert who has been involved in more than 200 smuggling investigations, worked on ICE's financial crimes task force for more than two years before he was booted out with the rest of the DPS team members.

During the time he spent in the ICE office, Mason says, he would look around the room and see few, if any, ICE agents who seemed to be doing anything. He says he would wonder if they were running down big leads behind the scenes, developing intelligence on smuggling kingpins. Or were they just watching the clock?

"I was fortunate enough to be given some serious standing in my investigations, and I attended meetings with high-level officials within ICE and the Department of Public Safety and Attorney General's Office," Mason says. "Those questions were never answered. To this day, I don't know."

When the state needed help with a large-scale wiretap operation initiated by DPS in 2004 against a suspected smuggling gang (more than 10,000 phone conversations were ultimately recorded), ICE volunteered just two agents to help out: Andy Anderson and Rod McCauley.

Only one of them spoke fluent Spanish.

"ICE is so fortunate to have hardworking guys like them," Mason says. "But [those two were] the limitation of their resources."

And this was when the staff of the Phoenix ICE office had been doubled in size for "Operation ICE Storm," a temporary crackdown on smuggling gangs.

In one instance during the wiretap case, DPS officers listened in as suspects planned to send a load of Mexicans to Nevada. They pulled the van over on the highway, hoping to interview everyone inside.

"I was directed by an ICE agent to bring those UDAs [undocumented aliens] to the ICE office on Central," Mason says.

But when he and fellow agents got there with the cargo, the ICE supervisor on duty told him his office "wasn't a dumping ground for undocumented immigrants. And he opened up the back door . . . and [the illegal aliens] walked down Central Avenue."

Interviewing the suspects, he says, could have led to another big break in the case.

Oh, well.

Despite the minimal help from ICE, the DPS — along with Phoenix police and the state Attorney General's Office — turned the wiretap investigation into a major bust. Authorities indicted 28 people and seized 11 used car lots in Phoenix that had been used to provide smugglers with fleets of vehicles.

Mason says he has worked with ICE in Louisiana, California and New York, where he found the investigators, cooperation and level of service "phenomenal."

It's a different story in Arizona.

"The goings-on in the Phoenix [ICE] office are critical. They mean a lot to national security, mean a lot to our state," he says. "And there's no cooperation."

Another law enforcement source who has worked closely with ICE says he knows of other cases in which the federal immigration agency could have helped, but for inexplicable reasons did not.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern