By Elliot Spagat
SAN DIEGO — As the leader of the national union representing Border Patrol agents, Terence J. Bonner traveled often. A fixture on cable television and in congressional hearings, he was highly sought by reporters for his pithy commentaries on border security.
So it was not uncommon for him to seek reimbursements over his 22 years at the National Border Patrol Council, some in the form of expense claims and others as premium pay for working overtime. The problem, federal prosecutors say, was that he claimed hundreds of thousands of dollars for personal reasons, such as visiting his mistress in Chicago and downloading pornography at home on hard drives purchased for the union.
Bonner, who retired from the union's top job last year, was indicted Thursday on 12 federal counts of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. The 59-year-old is scheduled to make an initial court appearance Monday.
Prosecutors say he submitted expense vouchers for meals, car rentals, luggage, books and other union-related activities when he was traveling for personal reasons.
"Siphoning hundreds of thousands of dollars from hard-working Border Patrol agents, many of whom put their lives on the line every day to protect this country, is a particularly troubling form of corruption that must be addressed," said Laura Duffy, the U.S. attorney in San Diego.
Bonner called the indictment "an ineffectual wild goose chase" in a statement Friday that detailed his long history of criticizing the federal government's record on border security. He insisted he is owed more than $100,000 for his time and expenses.
"The indictment is based on a deliberate misreading of highly technical regulations relating to reimbursement. It uses smear tactics about my personal life to distract from a central truth that will be established: I never cheated the government nor members of the union of a penny during my two decades of service," he said.
George McCubbin, who succeeded Bonner as union president, said the alleged corruption was limited to Bonner, who is widely known as T.J.
"Obviously this is going to be a black eye on our organization. For years, we were always above any of this. It's clear this is an isolated incident," McCubbin said. "There are no other union officers involved. This is strictly on T.J."
The charges cover periods when he was visiting his mistress in Chicago, his family, hockey games and other sporting events unrelated to the union. He also allegedly sought wages for time when he was downloading pornography at home.
McCubbin said the union's executive board learned about the investigation in April 2010. Bonner retired from the Border Patrol a month later after 33 years with the agency. The union allowed him to remain as president until his two-year term expired in March 2011.
Bonner submitted six years' worth of travel expenses to the government at the end of 2009 and filed a grievance when the Border Patrol refused to pay, McCubbin said.
"The agency said, `This doesn't smell right,' and that's when they started their investigation," he said.
The indictment also accused the union's secretary-treasurer of conspiring with Bonner, although it does not name the person. Mark Conover, an assistant U.S. attorney, said the person has not been charged and declined to say if there were other targets.
McCubbin, who has been a longtime union officer, said Bonner got special treatment from the union treasurer, who no longer holds the position.
"When we submitted expense vouchers, he never questioned anything for T.J. If we submitted something and forgot a receipt, he'd circle it and send it back to us. He didn't do that with T.J.," he said.
Bonner, who lives near San Diego in the small border town of Campo, was the union's voice at a time when the agency grew to more than 20,000 agents and put up hundreds of miles of fencing and other barriers along the U.S. border with Mexico. His outspoken advocacy for better working conditions repeatedly won him re-election.
The union, which is part the American Federation of Government Employees and AFL-CIO, has 14,000 members who pay monthly dues of $56, according to the indictment.
Bonner allegedly signed off on policies that benefited him and other officers, such as clothing allowances and up to $800 a year to buy gifts for spouses and children. One policy allowed union officers to claim lost wages for Sundays, holidays, nights and overtime if they provided proof to the secretary-treasurer that they were doing union work.
The indictment listed $87,863 in false claims for lost wages from 2007 to 2010 and $48,067 in other false expense reports during that same period. It says he "obtained hundreds of thousands of dollars in union funds to which he was not entitled."
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McCubbin said the union adopted internal controls since learning of the investigation.
Copyright 2012 Associated Press