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Former employee at US customs and border protection testified that Magnus told her he feared union-labor tensions if he fired her for violating union policy
Christopher Magnus, the candidate for US customs and border protection (CBP) secretary general nominated by Barack Obama, settled a sexual harassment and retaliation lawsuit in 2015 with a former official who said he told her he feared union-labor tensions if he fired her for violating union policy.
Magnus, the former director of the US transportation security administration’s criminal apprehension division and a lieutenant general in the US army reserve, has represented federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, including in cases of sexual harassment.
But one of the most damaging aspects of Magnus’s tenure came to light in an investigation conducted at the request of Representative Duncan Hunter of California. It centers on an employee, Bettina Phipps, who told the congressman that Magnus repeatedly harassed her and undermined her performance. Magnus has maintained that his relationship with Phipps was consensual.
Bettina Phipps. Photograph: Courtesy of Bettina Phipps
According to Phipps’s sworn declaration before Hunter, she said she told him that Magnus repeatedly asked her “about men [and] about whether she had ever considered having a relationship with a man”.
Phipps also alleged that Magnus would walk up to her in a corridor and say “my life is boring”, “you should be doing more with your career”, and “I enjoy having you here”.
In the same declaration, Phipps testified that Magnus told her “if he fired me the outcome would be terrible for him personally and for the (US) Customs and Border Protection union, because many of the union’s representatives would turn on him if he fired me because his relationship with me is not professional and also because the union would be highly critical of his decision.”
If Chris Magnus is confirmed, the CBP leadership team would not be centered on gender or race even though so many allegations of brutality and harassment have been made by black officers Bettina Phipps
She claimed that he later told her that if she wanted the union to have “professional relations” with him, she “had to get along with” him.
“If Chris Magnus is confirmed to be chief of the CBP,” Phipps wrote in her declaration, “the CBP leadership team would not be centered on gender or race even though so many allegations of brutality and harassment have been made by black officers.”
A year after Phipps filed the harassment lawsuit against Magnus, the two entered into a pre-trial mediation agreement. In September 2015, Magnus paid Phipps $50,000 in an “adjustment to her severance”, and she agreed to withdraw her harassment claim and to never disparage him.
Over the next three years, the harassment allegations continued.
Phipps said in her declaration that over that time, “a significant number of important leaders at CBP were maliciously targeting her and, from their perspectives, had failed to have successfully managed her”. She asserted that these former high-ranking officials received letters from her lawyer, who is a client of her former employers.
This attempt to smear me or even try to recruit me, intimidation and harassment, never stopped Karen Magnus, Magnus’s wife
One of the high-ranking officials had expressed “perceived resentment that the government’s brief consideration for an alternate candidate had caused him to be retained in his present position and to persist with retaliatory actions against Phipps”, the declaration said.
After holding talks with her superiors, Phipps said that she “was told that Chris had expressed concerns regarding higher-ups at CBP in communication with her, and that he did not like what he was hearing and learning about the mistreatment and undermining of its own employees”.
“I informed him of my intention to expose these possible retaliatory actions and took time to consider a response,” she continued.
Phipps said that Chris responded with a letter “that essentially warned that people ought to not do anything that would harm his career or reputation”.
Karen Magnus, Chris’s wife, said in her sworn declaration that she knew of the harassment claims against her husband but had not been kept informed about the settlement because she did not want any negativity around the nomination.
Her husband’s candidacy has been mired in controversy since before he was nominated, because of accusations that he targeted subordinates and threatened them. He denied the accusations.