WASHINGTON — Two years after Congress approved funding, U.S. Customs & Border Protection has just hung out the “for hire” sign for 72 textile specialists and investigators to fight violations such as transshipments.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, trying to ease lawmakers’ concerns, said in a letter to Rep. Robin Hayes (R., N.C.) that by the end of 2006 the agency expects to fill all of the positions, which will include at least 17 overseas posts and a “large number” of import specialists, audit, analytic and investigative staff.

“I agree that textile transshipment is a difficult problem that requires continued focus of our enforcement efforts,” Chertoff wrote in the letter dated May 3. “We have devoted a significant amount of the department’s agent and specialist manpower on textile enforcement (more than 280 full-time equivalent employees this year) with spending in excess of $23 million.”

Chertoff, who took over from Tom Ridge on Feb. 15, did not address why there was such a long delay in the hiring process.

He did point to an increase in overall enforcement activities of 346 percent in 2004 compared with 2003, an increase of 67 percent in sites visited, with 764 more textile manufacturers reviewed.

Hayes, Rep. Sue Myrick (R., N.C.) and Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R., N.C.) sent letters to Customs officials and Chertoff inquiring about allegations that the department failed to properly allocate $9.5 million in congressionally approved funding to hire the 72 textile specialists and investigators.

Funding for the additional personnel at the Textile Enforcement Division was provided in the fiscal year 2004 and 2005 Homeland Security appropriations bills.

“I have to acknowledge that some progress is finally being made, but I’m disappointed in the timetable,” Hayes said in an interview. “I understand Chertoff inherited this and there will be time lost in the transition from one secretary to another, but that doesn’t change the perilous nature of the position we find ourselves in.”

Hayes said he plans to hold follow-up discussions with the agency to inquire whether experienced and trained Customs people can be shifted from other areas into the textile enforcement area, which might speed up the process.

This story first appeared in the May 5, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Dole said in a statement: “While I’m heartened the administration is finally moving forward on this, it is my fervent hope that it will proceed expeditiously and complete this hiring ahead of schedule.”

The domestic textile industry, which initially raised the concerns with lawmakers, said Chertoff’s letter left many questions unanswered.

“I am troubled by the letter because it is short on specifics in regard to how many [textile investigators] they are going to actually hire this year and what the timing is,” said Auggie Tantillo, executive director of the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition. “Why does the industry have to wait another year-and-a-half to get something done that Congress appropriated over a year ago? It clearly shows this is not a priority.”

Tantillo said he is still seeking information on how many shipments were seized last year, the number of companies that were fined, the total amount of penalties assessed and the percentage of imports, which totaled $83 billion last year, which were actually inspected.

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