WASHINGTON — One of the most senior officials at the U.S. Border Patrol quietly resigned in October amid an internal investigation into allegations of improper conduct with women, according to four people familiar with the matter.
The official, Tony Barker, the acting chief of the Border Patrol’slaw enforcement operations directorate, had been an agent for more than 20 years and was being considered for a high-ranking post when he learned that internal investigators were reviewing his online communications with women, including subordinates, that took place on government equipment. The people familiar with the situation spoke on condition of anonymity, because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the personnel matter.
The agency did not provide specific details about Mr. Barker’s case, citing federal privacy laws that prohibit discussion of individual cases.
“As of Oct. 14, 2022, Tony Barker is no longer an employee of the U.S. Border Patrol. We do not tolerate misconduct within our ranks,” Justin Long, a Customs and Border Protection spokesman, said in a statement on Saturday.
“When we discover any alleged or potential misconduct, we immediately refer it for investigation and cooperate fully with any criminal or administrative investigations. This is the case whether the alleged misconduct occurs on or off duty.”
For years, Customs and Border Protection, which includes the Border Patrol, has been criticized for its lax discipline policies and a lack of transparency about investigations into employee conduct.
NBC first reported Mr. Barker’s resignation. It said Mr. Barker had pressured a subordinate employee to perform sexual favors, and that other women have since made similar allegations that they were victimized by him, citing three officials with the Department of Homeland Security. The New York Times has not corroborated NBC’s reporting.
“The allegations that I pressured any woman for sexual favors or victimized them are entirely and unequivocally false,” Mr. Barker said in a statement. “I am proud of my 21 years of service with the U.S. Border Patrol. I am now taking this time to focus on my family and seek other opportunities.” Mr. Barker is married and has two daughters.
Concerns about Mr. Barker surfaced last fall during the vetting process when he was being considered for a top position in the Border Patrol, according to people familiar with the investigation.
It was during these conversations that allegations about Mr. Barker’s interactions with women came up, prompting a search of his emails, a person familiar with the investigation said. In addition, a woman filed a complaint about him to the Office of Professional Responsibility, which handles internal personnel investigations, the person said. Since then, other women have come forward.
Another person familiar with the internal inquiry said communications that raised concerns involved Mr. Barker pressuring a woman with whom he had a previous relationship to speak with him. An exchange with a second woman included what investigators flagged as potentially a form of threat regarding her involvement with a government contract.
The process for reporting such behavior within Border Patrol, a male-dominated agency where women make up about 5 percent of the work force, has long been considered flawed, often leading to no real accountability.
Chris Magnus, the former Customs and Border Protection commissioner who was asked to step down in November, said that he held multiple meetings with women while at the agency to address some of these issues, including the challenges of reporting sexual misconduct involving co-workers. Mr. Magnus said that several women described the process to him as pointless, especially when it involves complaining to a supervisor who may be close friends with the accused.
“Too many of these guys just sort of stick together and protect each other,” Mr. Magnus said. “It’s a culture of a wink and a nod.”
Amanda Cali, a Border Patrol agent based in upstate New York, is suing the Department of Homeland Security for unlawful discrimination based on sex, citing a hostile work environment based on sex and retaliation. In August of 2020, she said, she was sexually assaulted by a co-worker. She reported the incident to her supervisor, but the supervisor said the agent in question deserved support because he had been at the agency so long, according to the complaint filed in the United States District Court in Western New York.
The supervisor then continued to plan the agent’s retirement party. Ms. Cali filed an employment discrimination complaint, but the ensuing investigation took nearly two years to complete.
“They hide sexual assaults and sexual harassment against mostly female agents,” said Jenn Budd, a former Border Patrol agent who left the agency in 2001 after she said she was sexually assaulted and beaten by a classmate at the Border Patrol training academy.
“The high-ranking male officers tend to get away with these crimes,” said Ms. Budd, who now speaks regularly to women in the agency who tell her they have been harassed by fellow agents.
Concerns about the culture at Customs and Border Protection were underscored last year when details about sexual harassment or misconduct at the Department of Homeland Security’s law enforcement agencies — including the Border Patrol — were found to have been withheld from an inspector general’s report, based on a draft released last year. The omission has fueled anxiety that there is little accountability for such behavior.
Since then, the Homeland Security secretary has reiterated his commitment to fair treatment in the workplace.
“It is our responsibility to provide every D.H.S. employee with a professional environment free of sexual harassment and other misconduct,” Alejandro N. Mayorkas wrote last year in an April memo addressing the missing inspector general findings.
People who have worked with Mr. Barker described him as widely respected.
Mr. Barker’s two-decade career at the Border Patrol was marked with one promotion after another. He was a key official involved in managing migration challenges at the southern border. During the Trump administration, he was detailed to the department’s front office to advise the secretary at the time, Kirstjen Nielsen.
Mr. Barker joined the Border Patrol in 2000 and served in posts in Houlton, Maine; Detroit; Sonoita, Ariz.; Del Rio, Texas; and Washington, D.C. He would have likely been a top contender to replace the current Border Patrol chief, Raul Ortiz, when Mr. Ortiz eventually retires.
Kitty Bennettand Seamus Hughes contributed research.