WBUR

Calls For Leniency For Sympathetic Customs Official

Lorraine Henderson, a top Homeland Security official in Boston, departs federal court following an initial appearance in Boston on Dec. 5, 2008. (AP)

Lorraine Henderson, a top Homeland Security official in Boston, departs federal court following an initial appearance in Boston on Dec. 5, 2008. (AP)

BOSTON — At the trial of Lorraine Henderson, the federal judge suggested that had the defendant been a housewife in Weston, she would never have been brought to trial for knowingly encouraging an illegal alien — her cleaning woman — to stay in the country.

Then again, had Henderson been a housewife in Weston, she probably would have hired that cleaning woman more often than twice a month to clean her condo for a a couple of hours. As it was, Fabiana Bitencourt, of Brazil, was no more than a casual hire, if also a disastrous one.

Disastrous because Henderson was the New England Port Director for U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). It was her job to keep illegal aliens out of the Port of Boston.

As a federal prosecutor pointedly commented after Henderson’s arrest, “She was supposed to be deporting illegal aliens, not hiring them.”

Now, after her conviction and as she is about to be sentenced for a crime that carries a maximum of five years in prison, Henderson’s many friends and fellow employees are asking for leniency, saying that prison time for Henderson is simply unwarranted.

“I think it’s a disgrace. It should never have gone this far,” said Jeanne Dugan, Henderson’s former supervisor at CBP and a career federal employee. “She worked so hard for 30 years and now everything is taken away from her for no reason at all.”

Dugan is one of 74 people who have written to the judge on Henderson’s behalf. They describe her as hardworking, selfless and willing to step in wherever the organization needed her.

William Heffelfinger, longtime deputy assistant commissioner of CBP, said Henderson is a caring colleague who commanded the loyalty of subordinates.

Heffelfinger said while he did not condone Henderson’s serious mistake, she had contributed years of outstanding service.

“She was competent and well-regarded professionally and personally,” Heffelfinger said.

Over her career, Henderson had risen up the ranks from GS-2 to GS-15, the highest rank of civil service. She started at the Department of Homeland Security — working for CBP — a week after high school graduation and never left. The agency touted her success as an example of what a woman with no college education might accomplish.

But another longtime CBP colleague, Arthur Pitts, who wrote that Henderson’s misstep was a “result of her reliance on the tenderness and goodness of her heart, rather than on the power of her brain cells,” also noted that “that Henderson was woefully unqualified and unprepared” for the elevated position to which she was advanced.

She’s being prosecuted, he wrote, “only because of her position, title and grade…”

“Somebody didn’t like her,” says Mark Conrad, a retired supervisory special agent, who worked in Internal Affairs and eventually became a whistle-blower and outside critic of CBP. “Somebody snitched her off, reported her.”

Conrad and some of Henderson’s other former supervisors say the supervisor who was told Henderson was hiring a likely illegal alien could have and should have handled the matter differently.

“Rather than have her boss come to her and say, ‘Knock this crap off,’ they decided to make an example out of her because she was mid-level management, she wasn’t that high up in the food chain,” Conrad said.

At her trial, Henderson testified that she didn’t understand immigration law. Even most of her friends find that unconvincing.

“Everybody that worked in Customs or Immigration knew you couldn’t hire somebody who was illegally in this country, period,” Conrad said.

But CBP routinely tolerates worse behavior than Henderson’s at higher levels of the organization, especially on the southern border, Conrad claims. For some reason, he and others believe, Henderson was singled out.

The criminal investigation began when Henderson’s supervisor alerted Internal Affairs. Federal agents then tracked down Bitencourt, and she readily agreed to wear an electronic wire to incriminate Henderson. In return, Bitencourt got to extend her stay in the country.

On the hidden mike, Bitencourt recorded herself telling Henderson she was in the country illegally and needed help for her and her baby. Henderson said, “If you leave they won’t let you back … you can’t leave.”

Frank DiMento, Henderson’s attorney, says Henderson’s comments were no more than cheap advice.

“Simply to tell the alien, ‘Don’t leave the country until you’ve filed your application to become legal,’ is not an act, it’s simply verbiage that doesn’t amount to a crime,” DiMento said. “I simply don’t understand how the jury did not understand that.”

If Henderson had too much of one virtue, a number of letter-writers comment, it was her compassion. Bitencourt had a baby. Friends speculate that’s why Henderson didn’t act sooner, before Bitencourt had snared her on the secret wire and it was too late.

Convicted at 52,  Henderson now works as a part-time cashier at PetSmart and as a dog walker. The same week she was arrested, she had received a $4,000 performance bonus for her work at CBP.

She declined comment, citing CBP policy, where she is still on suspension without pay awaiting termination.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office is withholding comment until after the judge’s sentence.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on wbur.org.
  • PJW

    What I find truly stunning with this case is that there are people defending her actions. She is a sworn officer of the law – and a reasonably high-ranking one at that. She is (and should be) held to a higher standard. Ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking the law for anyone. And in her case, there is no excuse for ignorance of the law.

  • o2bkim

    WOW…Of course she should be made an example of, because her JOB is to keep ILLEGALS out and to act oblivious to the very JOB in MANAGEMENT that she got paid to do I’m sorry but thats a slap in the face to every American Citizen. This woman deserves everything she gets because she took an oath to this country and turned the other cheek and mocked it, just like the Illegals do. She is a pathetic example of a citizen and a joke.

  • kat

    I know of Harvard professors who routinely flout immigration laws by hiring illegal immigrants for nannies and house cleaners. All paid under the table. ICE should be auditing all of them.

  • http://www.loganairportvaletparking.com Bill Bell

    She should be sent to prison. This woman is the prime example why there is no respect for the law anymore.

  • marisaluppino

    Please…did it really need to go to court..waste more taxpaper money….I believe this country has enought problems to solve main one being BP and the oil mess that they created….Want to see what happens to them….Let me guess…they will buy themselved out of this mess.

  • Han Solo

    This is a perfect example of human greed, she will take the paycheck but not do the job, she deserves to be stripped of her position, do some time for the crime, pay fees and enjoy the rest of her life as a NON federal employee. She is a hypocrite and its about time they start putting hypocrites into spotlight. Also the brazilian woman should be deported

  • hank

    Not only should she go to jail the illegal should be sent back to Brazil right now.It is a shame that our rep in Ma sell us out all the time.

  • Cindy

    Both should be in jail. It does not matter if your job is a nanny or a white collar worker. If you are illegal you should be deported. It is the law. It would not be fair to treat her differently. Send her back and put the person who knew and gave her a job in jail..

  • cindy

    She broke the law. Why should they have to warn her she knew better. She knew the law. That is like telling a person who gets caught speeding it isn’t his fault because his radar detector did not work. She knew what she did was wrong. She should be fired and do community service.

  • Friend O USA

    That is what happened when CBP was formed. All the US Customs staff went to higher positions over the Immigration staff and had and still have no clue how to handle Immigration issues!!Thank you prosecutors for doing what IA couldn’t do! Long live Legacy Immigration!

  • Friend of the U.S. of A. also

    74 people wrote in on her behalf…those are 74 idiots. Friends and family okay, write in on her behalf, but who is Pitts to talk about her, he is an idiot also, and still an active government employee that should not have been allowed to comment on this matter. If he wasn’t at CBP headquarters being protected. Heck, I do my own lawn and yard work, my own chores around the house, etc. so there would be no integrity issues. It is topical with CBP giving out $4000 to employees already making well into six-figure salary. Why not give the lower grade employee the higher bonuses for exceptional performance? Nope, not at CBP. Like Heffelfinger said…she WAS competent…etc. Or was that the impression she gave everyone, or her superiors? It’s sad; however, good to finally see a high ranking employee involved in wrongdoing AND face JUSTICE.
    For your some extra reading:
    http://www.friendsoftheborderpatrol.com/pdf/PR11_FOBP_Denounces_Ahern_Medal.pdf
    http://www.examiner.com/county-political-buzz-in-san-diego/san-diego-the-latest-destination-for-a-screw-up-move-up-border-tour
    Check out: David Longoria, Chris Maston
    http://kimberlydvorak.blogspot.com/2009/12/san-diego-latest-destination-for-screw.html

  • JS

    I am a low level CBP employee, if I was to commit the same crime as Ms. Henderson, would all the bigwigs in D.C. come to my aid and request leniency? I think not!

  • Raymond Ciccolilli

    I am amazed at how many people can get this all wrong. Zoë Baird was Bill Clinton’s first nomination for attorney general. It was found that she had hired an illegal aliens when it was not illegal to do so but she never paid SS taxes for the aliens’ labor. It cost her the nomination. She only had to pay a fine. She was never charged with felony. Henderson was set up, plain and simple. She was posed a question by someone who already knew she could not leave the U.S. and return. Any immigration lawyer could have told he the same information. But, what they charged Henderson with was “Obstruction of Justice” a catch all that covers almost anything and everything when the government is grasping at straws to find anything to prosecute someone for.
    Customs pushed Henderson up the career ladder simply to prove a point, that Customs/ CBP is fair with all their employees when it come to promotions. This, we all know is not true! So after pushing her to a position she really had no right to be promoted to, they have thrown her under the bus to again show that they are also fair when it comes to disciplining one of their own managers when they do wrong. This again, we also know is not true.
    Some people have done much worse, and because they had friends or because who they are, they were never punished.
    In the name of Justice, I have also written to Judge Woodlock and pleaded with him to set this verdict aside.
    And those of you from legacy immigration, you have done so much better by merging into CBP. You gained a greatly enhanced retirement that Customs had. You gained all their authority that you did not have and now you are all GS12′s, which you would not have if you were still immigration. So please, get over it. You really make me sick.

  • http://ndgoon.blogspot.com Goon

    I say through the book at her.

  • Retired

    When is the weak kneed judge going to sentence this person? 
    She was hired to ENFORCE the IMMIGRATION LAWS, not pick and choose the ones she likes, or take advantage of ILLEGALS that she knew could not complain about the ABUSE of her position.
    Quit screwing around, get this done!

Most Popular