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Romantic sunsets at sea, frolicking on sandy islands and hours of lounging on the deck. It sounds like an ad for "The Love Boat," but it's a day at the office for some Immigration and Naturalization Service inspectors - whose families and friends get to tag along free.

The inspectors are assigned to search for illegal immigrants aboard luxury cruise ships. While the Clinton administration tries to trim 252,000 jobs from the federal payroll, there's no talk of downsizing, belt-tightening or reinventing government during a typical cruise. INS officials and their guests board ship at the crack of dawn and head for ports of call like the Bahamas. By noon, they have reached their destination and settle in for the afternoon. The actual work does not start for another four or five hours.At other times, INS officials have taken their wives on five-day, four-night luxury-liner cruises to exotic Mexican vacation spots. Their guests ride for free or reduced fares as long as they stay in the same room. On discounted day trips, guests of INS inspectors ride for as little as $10 while the general public pays $99 to $119 for the same cruise. Inspectors have taken as many as three guests per cruise with them.

Federal law prohibits INS inspectors from bringing their friends and families along on discounted cruises. Since 1989, they have received two specific warnings that the trips for families and friends are illegal. But Department of Justice investigators recently found INS inspectors still illegally accepting such trips at least 15 percent of the time. Since inspectors have the authority to fine a cruise line up to $3,000 for each illegal alien they find on board, the free trips pose a conflict of interest.

"The reduced fares would cause a reasonable person to question whether such a gratuity could result in more lenient inspections or treatment of the cruise lines," DOJ investigators wrote in an internal report.

Rather than checking passport and immigration information when passengers reach port, INS officials often inspect passengers and crew members while they are en route to the United States. That's when friends and family of INS officials can travel at reduced rates.

According to conservative estimates by the DOJ inspector general, the taxpayers paid INS inspectors $218,000 in salaries and benefits to take 1,615 of these cruises in 1992. In 1993, there were 1,190 en route inspections.

Since the en route inspections are primarily for the convenience of the cruise lines, the ships pick up the inspectors' overtime costs and travel expenses - including taxis, food and lodging. Neither the INS or the cruise lines could provide receipts for inspectors' expenses, which "only exacerbates" the "appearance of a conflict of interest," according to the report.

INS officials in Washington responded to the report by saying, as they have in the past, that they are working "towards correcting the problems identified."