By Paul Gottlieb
Peninsula Daily News
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Mauricio G. Benitez, 42, of Port Angeles admitted Wednesday in his plea agreement that he choked his acting field operations supervisor, identified in court records only as “J.W.,” and pinned him against a chair during a work meeting with other supervisors Sept. 29, 2011.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office and Benitez agreed to a sentence of three years’ probation and the possible condition that Benitez complete an anger-management program.
Misdemeanor assault of a federal officer is a federal crime punishable by imprisonment of up to one year and a fine of up to $100,000.
Benitez will be sentenced at 10 a.m. June 5 in U.S. District Court in Tacoma.
He remains a supervisory Border Patrol agent in Port Angeles and “remains on administrative leave while this matter is pending,” said his lawyer, Ronald Friedman of Lane Powell in Seattle.
Agents based in Port Angeles patrol both Clallam and Jefferson counties.
Friedman said the altercation was over “policies and personnel matters” but would not elaborate on what prompted the fracas, which occurred at a midmorning meeting.
The Border Patrol does not comment on personnel matters regarding specific employees, agency spokesman Jeffrey Jones said in an email.
“We do not tolerate unlawful misconduct or abuse within our ranks,” Jones said.
He did not respond by midday Thursday to a request to describe the agency’s disciplinary process for agents who plead guilty to misdemeanor assault of a federal officer.
The incident involving Benitez was investigated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the investigative arm of the federal Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Border Patrol.
“ICE’s Office of Professional Responsibility is charged with investigating misconduct on the part of both ICE and [Customs and Border Protection] employees,” ICE spokesman Andrew Munoz said this week.
“It is an important mission because not only are we charged with protecting our nation’s borders, our agencies are charged with homeland security, which as law enforcement agencies demands that we hold ourselves to higher standards.
“Our internal investigations are primarily focused on ensuring the accountability and integrity of our employees.”
Friedman said Benitez has been stationed in Port Angeles for three years.
“During the meeting, tempers became aggravated; voices were raised,” he said.
“There may be further discipline by the Border Patrol, but we certainly hope he retains his job.”
A disciplinary board will examine the case, Friedman added.
“It will be reviewed by the Border Patrol, and they decide what, if any, further action is appropriate.”
According to the plea agreement, Benitez accepted responsibility for his actions.
“He apologized at the time. He apologized [Wednesday],” Friedman said. “He knows what happened, and he apologized.”
Here are excerpts from the “statement of facts” contained in the plea agreement that outline what happened during the incident:
“On Sept. 20, 2011, [Benitez] threatened to choke J.W. during a work meeting . . . Moments later, during the same meeting, defendant intentionally and voluntarily assaulted J.W. by forcibly putting his hands around J.W.’s neck and pinning J.W. against the chair in which J.W. was sitting.
“No punches were thrown or other blows exchanged, and the altercation ended seconds later when other individuals at the meeting separated defendant from J.W.”
Two months before the incident, on July 29, 2011, a national spotlight was trained on the North Olympic Peninsula over a whistleblower claim by then-Port Angeles Border Patrol Agent Christian Sanchez that agents had little to do.
Sanchez, who reached a settlement with the federal government and has since transferred from Port Angeles, asserted before the Congressional Transparency Caucus in Washington, D.C., that the Port Angeles station was akin to a “black hole” in which agents had nothing to do.
“During our work shifts, other agents and I always talked about how coming to work was like the ‘black hole,’ swallowing us up slowly, with no purpose, no mission,” Sanchez said then in a lengthy prepared statement.
Sanchez also said he was retaliated against after he refused to accept overtime pay.
The number of agents at the Port Angeles station has grown more than tenfold over seven years, from four in 2006 to 42 as of mid-March.
The incident involving Benitez occurred at the agency’s former headquarters at the Richard B. Anderson Federal Building in downtown Port Angeles, which became too small for the Border Patrol contingent.
In September, the Border Patrol station moved to its sprawling new $11.9 million headquarters about 2 miles east of downtown.
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5060, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.