THE SHORT-LIVED COMMISSIONER

THE SHORT-LIVED COMMISSIONER

Raymond Kelly, who resigned on the last full day of the Clinton administration, should be a poster boy for the need for longer terms for Customs commissioners. Kelly was in the job for two-and-a-half years, and there was a lot he accomplished. Under his watch, the first real training program at the agency was established. Integrity, discipline and morale were strengthened throughout the agency, something made necessary after a string of ugly disclosures prior to his arrival in August 1998.

But having come in as many commissioners have in the past with a strong law enforcement mandate, Kelly failed to appreciate until late in his term the possibilities for productive co-existence between Customs and the international trade community.To customs brokers and importers, Kelly's focus on internal affairs and the war on drugs and money laundering came across as being insensitive to their needs.

'Ray Kelly's biggest single problem was his failure to communicate with the international trade community. He did not feel we were part of the process,' said Bob Coleman, president of the Pacific Coast Council of Customs Brokers and Freight Forwarders Associations.

Brokers bristled when he avoided meeting with delegations visiting Washington and when he refused to send more than a handful of Customs officials to trade gatherings such as Wesscon. Importers chafed at the slow progress on improving the time and cost of audits and his disinclination to aggressively press Congress for automation funding. They sulked when longtime Customs staffers such as Peter Baish, Sam Banks and others left the agency for lucrative jobs in the private sector.

Kelly was never unaware of the complaints leveled against him, and as time went on his interest in working with the trade community grew. His trade symposium last fall was a landmark meeting between Customs and the trade. Even harsh critics such as Coleman of the PCC give Kelly credit for the event.

In the final months of his term Kelly organized a series of facilitated workshops to assess Customs' likely role 20 years from now, and trade facilitation was high on the list.

In truth, trade interests should always be wary of expecting too much from any Customs commissioner. Customs is a law-enforcement agency, and 'facilitates' trade when its duties are being carried out efficiently.

God forbid that Customs were ever blamed for something real bad that got into the country that shouldn't have -- legitimate trade would feel it for years thereafter.

'I don't think we are ever going to have a commissioner who satisfies the trade community,' said Jim Clawson, secretariat of the Joint Industry Group.

It seems that Kelly's biggest problem, therefore, was not that he didn't appreciate trade matters, but that he didn't have the time to integrate them into his management approach.

'He wasn't there long enough to complete the shift in mindset,' said John Simpson, president of the American Association of Exporters and Importers and a former Treasury Department official.

'There is no question he didn't have as much time as he needed to institute the changes he wanted to put in place,' said Sam Banks, the former deputy Customs commissioner.

Kelly seemed to understand this better than anyone. He was known to have greatly enjoyed the job and lobbied hard to remain under the new administration.

He didn't announce his departure until the last possible moment, citing 'late discussions over a number of positions in the new administration to be filled by incumbents.'

His lack of popularity within the trade community may have had something to do with his not being asked to stay on, though commissioners typically leave with their administration.

Customs commissioner has always been a political appointment, but trade interests would be served by a longer term. What about five years?

The director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation is named to a 10-year term. Lack of leadership continuity at Customs can be cited as a contributing factor in any number of agency failures, such as the decade it will eventually take to build a contemporary computer system.

Now the position of the trade community is precarious. If Kelly had stayed on, they would have had a commissioner well along the learning curve in understanding their needs and role. The prospect is now that President Bush's nominee will have to start all over again.

Peter Tirschwell is editor of JoC Week. He can be reached at (973) 848-7158, or via e-mail at ptirschwell

oc.com.