Travel to Mexico 1,200 times in 5 years; Released by magistrate over objection of US Attorney’s Office
House, vehicles, financial accounts frozen by Cochise County day before arrest
Douglas – On June 8, U.S. Border Patrol agent Oscar Cornejo was taken into custody on charges that he “willfully and knowingly” provided “materially false, fictitious, and fraudulent” answers on a federal form he completed as part of a routine, periodic review into whether Cornejo could continue as a federal employee.
The form was a Questionnaire for National Security Positions, commonly referred to as a SF86. Employees of the U.S. Border Patrol and other federal law enforcement agencies are required to complete the 127-page questionnaire from time to time as part of a suitability investigation.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office accuses Cornejo of submitting a SF86 online on January 25 that contained false statements pertaining to his residency and his travel to and from Mexico over the last five years. According to the federal complaint, Cornejo reported only two occasions in which he traveled to Mexico between 2011 and 2016, along with some instances in which he had “dinner across the border in the local restaurants.”
However, Cornejo is alleged to have traveled to Mexico “over 1,200 times” in that period. Information about Cornejo’s travels was ascertained by “surveillance and investigative activity,” according to the federal complaint. The investigation determined that on most days, Cornejo crossed the border into Ague Prieta after his scheduled shift and did not return to the United States until “prior to the beginning of his scheduled shift”
The complaint also notes that Cornejo, age 38, “established primary residence in Agua Prieta” with his wife Maria, a Mexican national who is a permanent resident of the U.S., but failed to report his foreign residency or make “any official request” to reside in a foreign country. The couple, who married in 2008, have a six year old son who is an American citizen.
Cornejo was on-duty at the Tucson Sector’s Douglas Station when arrested on June 8. According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, he spent the night before in Agua Prieta before returning to his home in Douglas “to get dressed in his uniform.” He was booked into the Cochise County jail before being transferred to the U.S. Marshals Service.
On June 9 Cornejo appeared before federal magistrate judge Thomas Ferraro to be formally charged with one count of making false statements to the U.S. government, specifically to the Office of Personnel Management. Judge Ferraro ordered Cornejo remain detained by the Marshal Service to allow Pre-Trial Services time to review what conditions of release, if any, to recommend.
Several uniformed and plain-clothed Border Patrol personnel were in the gallery on June 12 when Cornejo appeared before magistrate judge Leslie Bowman on a bid to be released pending trial. The U.S. Attorney’s Office argued against release, noting Cornejo was “a flight risk” because he was “essentially living his life in Mexico and only working in” the United States.
Judge Bowman was also advised that Cornejo was served with notice a few minutes before the hearing that the USBP had suspended him without pay. The prosecutor argued Cornejo posed “a heightened risk” of not appearing for court proceedings based on his strong ties to Mexico and loss of job in the United States.
In rebuttal, attorney Eric Rau of the federal public defender’s office argued on Cornejo’s behalf that “sitting in custody is not productive” and that his client needs to be able to look for a job in order to support his family.
Rau also argued that the longtime Douglas resident could be released to a third party custodian in the United States, with whom Cornejo would live and who would be responsible for ensuring he show up to court proceedings.
Judge Bowman noted “it is not an unusual situation” for people in southern Arizona “to engage in activities” on both sides of the border. Bowman then ruled Cornejo be released without bail to a half-way house program until he can secure housing approval from Pre-Trial Services. The judge acknowledged her ruling was “contrary to the recommendation of Pre-Trial Services and over the government’s objection.”
Cornejo turned over his passport card during the hearing and was ordered to not travel outside the state without permission. Bowman advised Cornejo that any failure to abide by the court’s order or directives of Pre-Trial Services would result in U.S. Marshals taking him into custody.
The case will be assigned to U.S. District judge Bernardo Velasco for trial. If convicted, Cornejo faces up to five years in federal prison, although he could be eligible for probation.
Impending asset seizure by Cochise County
One reason for the difficulty in finding Cornejo a place to live is that the Cochise County Attorney’s Office has taken action to seize his Douglas home, vehicle, and bank accounts. That information was relayed in open court by defense attorney Rau, who revealed only that the seizure is not connected to the federal false statement case.
Also mentioned during the June 12 hearing is that Cornejo and his wife have an active Chapter 13 bankruptcy case. According to the 2014 filing, Cornejo’s gross monthly income that year was more than $9,100 a month. The couple had more than $40,000 in credit card debt, along with student loans, a vehicle loan, as well as a primary and second mortgage on their home in Douglas. Their list of assets and liabilities does not mention any property in Mexico.
Cornejo is a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in Peru but grew up in Miami. He has had a checkered career with the Border Patrol since joining the agency around 2000.
In 2005, Cornejo was riding in a car with fellow BP agent Ephraim Cruz as the men – who were off-duty – headed back to Douglas from Mexico. Cruz offered a ride to a woman who was dating another BP agent. The woman, who worked in a restaurant regularly patronized by BP personnel, was later discovered to be an illegal alien. Cornejo was not charged in the matter and testified against Cruz, who was acquitted by a jury.
In 2007, Cornejo was one of several USBP agents who responded to a Douglas neighborhood after a shovel was purportedly thrown at a BP vehicle. A dozen USBP personnel, including Cornejo, settled a lawsuit arising from a raid of a nearby residence that resulted in young children being pepper sprayed. The terms of the financial settlement were not disclosed.
At some point prior to that case, Cornejo was suspended from the USBP for lying to authorities during an investigation of a car accident in which he was a passenger.
Before joining the USBP, Cornejo pleaded no contest in a Dade County, Florida court in 1996 to retaliating against a witness and aggravated battery. He was sentenced to probation. However, in his January 2017 SF86 filing Cornejo answered “no” when asked if he had ever been charged with a felony. His false answer is cited in the criminal complaint filed June 8.