|English | Español||November 29, 2015 | Issue #33|
The Dysfunctional Anti-Drug Agencies
Documents Show a Pattern of Corruption Cover-Ups at DEA and Customs
By Bill Conroy
Letter to Senator Joseph Lieberman concerning Kleiman’s case from Assistant Customs Commissioner William Keefer (52 kb PDF)
Note: Acrobat Reader needed to view PDF documents
Bad cops can do real damage to the integrity of the justice system, but an even bigger problem is the cover-up that frequently occurs after someone blows the whistle on corruption—a fact of life Sandalio Gonzalez knows first-hand.
Sandalio Gonzalez is a 30-year-plus veteran of law enforcement. He has been with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) for a quarter of a century.
With his appointment in September 1998 to associate special agent in charge in Miami, Fla., he became the highest-ranking Cuban-American in DEA and the second in command of the Miami Field Division.
Over the course of his career with DEA, Gonzalez has taken on a number of domestic and foreign assignments, including a stint in Washington, D.C., as chief of South American Operations, just prior to coming to Miami.
But Gonzalez’ move to Miami would prove to be career altering. It was there that he ran headfirst into a suspected cover-up that thrust him into a major legal battle with the DEA.
Following a November 1998 search of a suburban Miami house, a joint DEA/Miami-Dade Police team came up short on a stash of cocaine. Prior surveillance of the house indicated there should have been about 32 kilograms of cocaine on the premises, but the total amount accounted for after the search fell 10 kilos short of that mark.
Enrique Bover and his wife, Gisel, who each had prior drug convictions, were the targets of the raid. After their arrest, the Bovers agreed to become confidential informants in a play for leniency in their case. Their cooperation did lead to several arrests.
The Bovers assert that they informed DEA agents about the missing cocaine immediately after their arrest and that the information was ignored. Months later, the Bovers found themselves being accused of taking the 10 kilos of coke.
Gonzalez, though, suspected a set-up. He says the same Miami-Dade Police team involved in the Bover raid was responsible for “compromising three prior drug cases.”
Gonzalez was clued into the potential corruption after receiving a memo from one of his agents outlining “apparent official misconduct … and violations of federal law,” according to a discrimination lawsuit Gonzalez filed in federal court in Miami.
“It was alleged that police officers may have taken the cocaine,” Gonzalez asserts in the lawsuit.
However, the fix was in, according to Gonzalez, who claims in his lawsuit that the “good ol’ boys” within DEA and the U.S. Attorney’s Office closed ranks to protect the “non-Hispanic/non-minority” DEA agents involved in the Bover raid.
The goal of the alleged cover-up, Gonzalez claims in his litigation, was to prevent “any type of scrutiny regarding the Bover allegations” of police misconduct. Specifically, the lawsuit asserts that DEA brass wanted to ward off scrutiny of the DEA agents’ “association with the Miami-Dade Police Department squad” that was involved in the Bover raid.
“The Bovers were deactivated as … informants in January 1999, following the arrest of Enrique Bover,” Gonzalez’s lawsuit states. “This arrest was based on what was clearly questionable information and evidence produced by a Miami-Dade detective who worked closely with (the suspect DEA agents and) who Gonzalez subsequently learned was under investigation by his own police department’s Internal Affairs Office, as well as by the Miami-Dade County State Attorney’s Office. The January 1999 case against Enrique Bover was consequently dismissed for lack of evidence.”
However, Gonzalez’s problems were only beginning.
“I took a stand on the missing 10 kilos of cocaine, and insisted that that they (DEA) do an investigation,” Gonzalez says. “And that was it.”
In the wake of pushing for that investigation into the missing coke, Gonzalez found him self the target of a series of actions by his superiors that he claims were designed to intimidate, embarrass and ultimately silence him. Gonzalez subsequently filed Equal Employment Opportunity claims against his superiors for their actions and ultimately took his case into federal district court in Miami.
In addition to suffering retaliation and discrimination designed to “harass and humiliate (him) and slander his character and damage his reputation,” Gonzalez asserts in his lawsuit that in January 2001 he was transferred involuntarily to the less prestigious post of special agent in charge of the El Paso, Texas Field Division.
“The prohibited actions cited … were undertaken by the Department of Justice-Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida personnel, all sanctioned and encouraged by management officials of the DEA, who also participated in the prohibited actions, and furthered an entrenched DEA policy or philosophy of racial profiling and retaliatory actions against minorities, specifically Hispanics,” Gonzalez alleges in his lawsuit.
Gonzalez’s legal case was dismissed on a technicality by a federal judge in the spring of 2003. However, a federal appeals court later reversed the decision and Gonzalez’s case was sent back to the federal district court, where it was still pending in 2004.
The Department of Justice, the defendant in Gonzalez’s lawsuit, contends the charges made in the case are without merit. Gonzalez, though, says his career did not merit being turned upside-down for blowing the whistle on suspected corruption within DEA.
“The missing cocaine is definitely the catalyst of my problems,” he says. “The cover-up (since then) has been amazing. They (his superiors) look at you blank-face and then look the other way.”
A decision to stare down a cover-up is also what former Customs Agent Diane Kleiman claims brought the heat down on her. Kleiman asserts that she was asked to commit perjury by her supervisor as part of an effort to conceal the success of a drug-smuggling scheme that allegedly involved employees of a major airline. Kleiman says she refused to go along with the cover-up and was subsequently fired as a result.
Kleiman—who worked as a Customs agent at JFK International Airport—says she attempted to make officials within Customs, as well as other federal agencies, aware of the alleged cover-up and the potential security risks it posed prior to the September 11 terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers in New York. However, Kleiman claims her warnings were ignored.
In the spring of 2002, Kleiman’s case was accepted for investigation by the U.S. Office of Special Council (OSC), an independent federal agency that is empowered to investigate and prosecute cases of alleged governmental misconduct and mismanagement.
“You allege that (your supervisor) took unfavorable personal actions against you in reprisal for engaging in whistleblower activity and refusing to provide false testimony before the grand jury,” states a March 18, 2002, letter from the OSC to Kleiman. “You also believe (your supervisor’s) actions were motivated by discrimination on the bases of race, sex and religion.
“Based on the information you submitted, we have decided to refer your complaint for an investigation….”
Janet Rapaport, spokesman for U.S. Customs in New York, declined to comment on Kleiman’s case “since this is an open administrative matter that U.S. Customs is looking into.”
Kleiman also filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Washington, D.C., in November 2002. The charges in the lawsuit are similar to those raised in her OSC complaint. Kleiman’s attorney is Ronald Tonkin of Houston—who also represented Laredo Customs Agent Romeo Salinas in his lawsuit against the agency.
Kleiman was the new kid on the block when she arrived in late 1998 as special agent at the U.S. Customs office at JFK International Airport in New York.
Kleiman, a former assistant district attorney in New York for six years, says in the spring of 1998 she decided to trade in her law books for a badge in order to become a special agent and to “fulfill her desire to serve her country.”
After about four months of training for the special agents’ job in Georgia, Kleiman was assigned initially to the World Trade Center in New York and later to U.S. Customs’ office at JFK. According to Kleiman, that’s when her troubles started.
“Immediately after arriving at JFK, I was called to a meeting by my supervisor,” states Kleiman in a July 25, 2001, letter that she sent to the OSC. “... The first comment that he made to me was the following: ‘Customs is like the Irish Mafia. Our form of affirmative action is hiring an Italian, so understand what your place is in this agency.’ This statement was made in regards to me being a female, a Jew and an attorney.”
Kleiman’s litigation spells out the extent of the alleged discrimination. Following is a section of Kleiman’s pleadings filed in U.S. District Court in New York. (Kleiman’s name has been substituted for the word plaintiff in the passages below.)
Kleiman was assigned to the “currency group” of the U.S. Customs Service at JFK Airport, with Supervisory Criminal Investigator Thomas Flood [SCI Flood is a non-Jewish white male] assigned as her supervisor on Dec. 22, 1998.
Kleiman was subjected to harassing comments upon her first meeting with SCI Flood. The harassing comments made by Flood related to Kleiman’s Jewish descent and her being a woman. SCI Flood pointed out that Kleiman was one of only a few Jews in the office and stated that he and a few other co-workers, Rich Dallasandro [non-Jewish white male] and Don Hughes [non-Jewish white male] were taking bets as to how long it would take before Kleiman resigned. SCI Flood told Kleiman that U.S Customs Service had been all Irish in the past and that U.S. Customs’ form of affirmative action was hiring an Italian, and that Kleiman should have an understanding of her place in the Agency.
SCI Flood told Kleiman that he could never understand why the people with the most money, meaning Jews, care about those who had nothing, meaning the blacks. SCI Flood assigned Kleiman to a desk in the “Ghetto,” a cubicle area, where four desks were together. SCI Flood told Kleiman he was putting her in this location because three out of the four Jews in the office were in this area and this way, “he could keep an eye on all of us.”
SCI Flood stated that he was assigning Kleiman an old car for the first three months and that if Kleiman didn’t get into an accident, he would assign her a better car. Flood stated that U.S. Customs was plagued with women who can’t drive. Flood stated that none of the men had been involved with accidents, which goes to “prove his theory that men are better drivers than women.” Flood said maybe it’s because they put their makeup on and get ready for work in the car.
SCI Flood called Kleiman into the office on a daily basis, subjecting her to malicious comments pertaining to her being incompetent because she was a woman and to having to keep “an eye on the Jew in the office.”
Kleiman was in a co-worker’s office with several other men present. One man loudly stated that he had a friend at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), an agency where Kleiman previously worked, who told him that Kleiman had some plastic surgery while at ATF. Then he pointed to his chest and he asked Kleiman if “she had her tits done.” After that, a rumor was spread that Kleiman had breast implants. Thereafter, male agents would make rude comments regarding Kleiman’s breasts.
SCI Flood assigned Agent Rich Dallasandro to be Kleiman’s training officer. Kleiman repeatedly asked Dallasandro for work. Dallasandro never gave Kleiman the time of day and refused to talk to her. One day, Kleiman walked up to Dallasandro and Dallasandro put his hand in Kleiman’s face and said, “talk to the hand.” Kleiman asked Dallasandro what the problem was and he stated that he has a short time to retirement, that he has been in the group for a long time, and that the last thing he needed was to be a training officer, “especially to a female.”
Dallasandro never explained to Kleiman her duties. Dallasandro was required to teach Kleiman the procedures and mechanisms of the U.S. Customs Service. However, Dallasandro refused to train Kleiman. Dallasandro openly humiliated Kleiman on a daily basis either by yelling, cursing or using crude language (as when he told Kleiman to report for a “piss test” in front of 8-10 other male police officers and agents). Every time Kleiman asked Dallasandro a question, he told her he was too busy or that Kleiman was “a stupid bitch.” Dallasandro constantly cursed and referred to Kleiman in four-letter terms. When Kleiman asked Dallasandro to stop, he called Kleiman a “prissy fucking bitch.” On numerous times, Dallasandro became irritated and suggested that Kleiman take a Valium or “get laid.” Kleiman was continuously subjected to a hostile work environment.
Around the middle to the end of January 1999, SCI Flood stated that he was making up a duty roster and said that he was assigning Kleiman the weekend duty because Kleiman’s people (meaning Jews) were always having holidays, which was a great excuse to get out of work, but still get paid. Flood, Dallasandro and Hughes always made fun of Kleiman by calling her “Keinberg” (or) ”Kleinstein.” (And adding,) “You know, they all sound the same.”
Despite the alleged discrimination and harassment, Kleiman pressed on. Over the first few months of 1999, she made a series of disclosures to her supervisor that were met with harsh reactions.
In her OSC complaint, Kleiman reveals that she reported to her supervisor at JFK the use of excessive force on a suspect, several incidents of improperly handled evidence, an office gambling operation involving payouts exceeding $5,000, and the fact that there was some $300,000 unaccounted for in a case involving a large cash seizure.
“When I raised my concerns with (my boss), I was told to shut up and was virtually told that if I didn’t listen, I was finished,” Kleiman says.
Kleiman still wasn’t about to stand down, though. During the winter of 1999, she began to work a case involving an American Airlines baggage handler, a non-citizen, who was caught twice within a few months attempting to smuggle about $30,000 in currency out of the country.
“This baggage handler makes minimum wage, and after interviewing him, I felt he was engaging in criminal activity,” Kleiman states in her OSC complaint. “I reported this to (my supervisor) and recommended that either we cultivate this man as an informant and watch him, or report him to American Airlines security. (My supervisor) told me to keep my mouth shut and told me if I didn’t, he would make sure I was fired.”
By early spring of 1999, Kleiman would find herself jumping from the frying pan into the fire. In March, with the assistance of a DEA agent, Kleiman scored a major investigative coup that led to the arrest of a man attempting to smuggle 46.2 pounds of cocaine into the country, Kleiman states in her OSC complaint.
The case involved a smuggling scheme whereby an American Airlines employee was allegedly being used to assist the smuggler to bypass airline and airport security.
“... The method used by the smugglers usually involved a second individual, who customarily was seated behind the courier,” Kleiman states in a July 2001 letter to OSC. “This second individual would most likely be an employee of (the airline) and would have a key to the gate at the airport. According to DEA, this was how the drugs could enter the country, bypassing a Customs check point.”
The former agent claims a lack of security and the failure by airlines to perform thorough employee background checks make these schemes possible to pull off.
Again, in this case, Kleiman’s boss allegedly told her to withhold information.
“(My supervisor) ordered me to perjure my testimony before a grand jury because the defendant stated to me that he had smuggled drugs into JFK on prior occasions,” Kleiman states in her OSC complaint. “(He) wanted me to omit that information from the statement because it would look like Customs wasn’t doing its job, and it would embarrass the agency.”
Kleiman claims the cocaine smuggling case was considered a very complex investigation, particularly for a rookie like her. In fact, Kleiman alleges in her lawsuit that the case was given to her by her supervisor, Flood, in order to set her “up to fail in her first important case.”
However, Kleiman surprised everybody when she played a key role in the March 1999 bust.
After news of the arrest reached Flood, Kleiman was called into a conference room and interrogated for more than two hours by Flood and his boss, the assistant special agent in charge at JFK.
“(They) wanted to know what information (Kleiman) had given to the Drug Enforcement Administration,” the lawsuit alleges, because they knew a DEA agent had assisted Kleiman in the case.
“Flood stated that U.S. Customs was afraid that the DEA was going to break the case and that U.S. Customs would be embarrassed because drugs were smuggled into the United States right under U.S. Customs’ nose,” Kleiman’s lawsuit asserts.
Kleiman says Flood even went as far as to orchestrate the destruction of evidence related to the smuggling case.
(Again, in the following passage from her lawsuit, Kleiman’s name has been substituted for the word plaintiff.)
On March 16, 1999, Flood called Kleiman at home and told her to give the smuggling case file to Don Hughes the next day, and told her to keep her mouth shut about the case. On March 17, 1999 [Flood was not in the U.S. Customs office] Kleiman gave the smuggling case file to Agent Don Hughes and Kleiman observed Agent Hughes remove all the notes which she had placed in the case file and shred them, thereby sanitizing the file, and she further observed Agent Don Hughes making changes to the Treasury Enforcement Communications System II computer system.
On March 18, 1999, Kleiman had a meeting with agents Flood and Twomey regarding the smuggling case. On March 22, 1999, SCI Flood called Kleiman into his office and told her that her “hell” had just begun; that U.S. Customs did not want DEA taking credit for the case; and that he wanted Kleiman to lie to the Grand Jury that the DEA had nothing to do with the case; as well as state that it was senior U.S. Customs agents that had assisted Kleiman in the investigation. When Kleiman refused, the case was taken away from her and Flood stated that he was not going to let some “junior Jew bitch agent” take credit for such a big case.
Flood told Kleiman that he was going to retroactively withdraw permission for Kleiman to use the Government car on several occasions in the past several months and how he was citing Kleiman for these usage violations. Flood also threatened that he would place retroactive evaluations in Kleiman’s file and have Kleiman fired. Flood stated that since Kleiman’s mother lives alone, bad things could happen to her, like she could get killed. Kleiman again refused to provide false information on her reports (or) perjure herself before the federal Grand Jury.
Kleiman says she never was allowed to appear before the grand jury in the cocaine-smuggling case. In July 1999, she was fired.
Kleiman then filed an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) complaint—after having attempted to file such complaints unsuccessfully while employed at JFK.
“(Kleiman) attempted to file EEO complaints,” her lawsuit alleges. “However, Flood told (Kleiman) that she had to file EEO complaints through the chain of command.
“For months, (Kleiman) gave Flood her EEO complaints…. Flood did not pass on (Kleiman’s) complaints to be processed by the proper authorities.”
When Kleiman’s EEO case was finally acted on after she was terminated, the investigation revealed that two sets of job-performance evaluations did exist for her—and one of them had been altered, Kleiman’s OSC complaint states. The altered evaluation was prepared on March 22, 1999, the same day Kleiman’s supervisor had threatened to fire her.
When contacted, Flood declined to comment on Kleiman’s allegations.
However, Marvin Walker, the supervisor in charge of Customs agents at JFK, is outraged by Kleiman’s allegations. Walker claims in a memo to his staff that Kleiman’s charges are bogus and a blatant attempt to capitalize on the 9/11 tragedy in order to bolster her weak legal case.
Although Walker’s intention in writing the memo is to refute Kleiman’s allegations, in the process he has raised some serious questions about his own management judgment that, according to Kleiman, are proof he is “out of control.”
Walker’s memo was written in response to an article about Kleiman’s case that appeared in New York Magazine in June 2003—more than a year after a Texas paper broke the initial story about Kleiman’s case.
“Many of you have, no doubt, seen the New York Magazine article of June 2, 2003, concerning the allegations of former Customs Special Agent Diane Kleiman of rampant mismanagement, malfeasance, sexism and anti-Semitisim in the management of this office,” states Walker, in a June 5 memo he addressed to his subordinates at JFK. “While Ms. Kleiman has sought Whistleblower status by attempting to contort these allegations (which remain unfounded) into issues impacting national security, I wanted you, the workforce of this office, to understand that none of these allegations have any merit. ...”
Attached to the internal Customs memo is a letter to the writer of the New York Magazine article. That letter was never sent because Walker was “advised not to send it,” the memo states.
In that letter to the magazine, Walker accuses Kleiman of attempting to inflict “multiple professional and personal injuries,” and he thanks the magazine writer “for taking the time to characterize the behavior and the appearance of former Special Agent Diane Kleiman … as it at least gives one pause to consider why she is no longer employed as a Customs special agent.”
In addition, Walker concedes in the memo that official Customs policy prevents him from responding publicly to Kleiman’s charges.
Walker writes the following in the memo:
“I write to each of you, because everyone has the right to defend themselves in the court of public opinion. Sadly, we here, the maligned, who have been living with this sordid tale since June 1999, are precluded by Agency policy from responding to the New York Magazine article, predicated upon the pending litigation of Ms. Kleiman in U.S. District Court. Yes, that’s where we are headed. I also write to each of you, because this missive has the potential for sustaining a corrosive effect on the morale of this office. Sensational allegations such as these, unrefuted by an agency spokesperson, and allowed to linger, even in the face of pending litigation, could cause one to infer that silence equals acquiescence.
“As that is not the case, we are constrained by official policy from responding, and we will abide by that policy. However, I have attached a rebuttal letter, which I wrote to the author of the article, Mr. Craig Horowitz, to attempt to refute these allegations, as well as to thank him for a balanced article. ... I was wisely advised NOT to send it, and I did not. As this memorandum, and the attached letter is for INTERNAL CONSUMPTION ONLY, I ask that you read it, and then either shred it, or secure it.”
Kleiman’s attorney, Tonkin, says the memo is a demonstration of Walker’s “animus” toward Kleiman and represents a not-too-subtle attempt to pressure his staff to stick to the company line should they be questioned about her case. Tonkin, a former federal prosecutor, also says that by issuing orders to shred the memo, Walker was pressuring his staff to destroy evidence in a pending legal case.
“His constant barrage in the letter demeaning her character also goes to his motive,” Tonkin adds.
Walker, when contacted by phone, said he wrote the memo as an “attempt to do some internal damage control.”
“People are entitled to their opinions, but they are not entitled to their version of the facts,” he said.
Walker added that Kleiman is attempting to portray him as a supervisor who “presided over a corrupt enterprise.” He said he “is not that type of person,” stressing that he would never turn a blind eye to such corruption if it did exist.
Walker added, “Any supervisor who stands up nowadays and says, ‘Well, gee, you know I didn’t know what was going on,’ they’re either lying or a fool. ...”
For its part, Customs has denied Kleiman’s allegations in court pleadings filed in her case. One source within Customs, who asked not to be named, indicated that the real reason Kleiman was fired was because she misused a government car.
Kleiman agrees that among the stated grounds for her termination was that she allegedly misused a government vehicle. However, she says the charge is a deliberate attempt to distort the truth.
“I had turned in vehicle reports in January and February (of 1999) that were approved,” she asserts. “Why was there all of a sudden a problem (with my use of the government car) after March 22, the same day I refused to commit perjury and the same date that the phony evaluation was prepared? ... They were doing damage control.”
There have been some high-profile busts of smuggling operations involving airline employees in the past. But what makes Kleiman’s story unique is the alleged cover-up by a Customs supervisor that ensued after suspects were apprehended. John Hotard, a spokesman for American Airlines, said in a prepared statement in April 2002 that the airline is “on schedule to comply with the government’s (post 9/11) mandate that all employees and vendors with access to secured areas … undergo a criminal background check.”
“We notified employees about the background checks and have begun the fingerprinting process. Additionally, even though we are not required to, American Airlines is performing 10-year background checks on all new hires and verifying the most recent five years. American has revalidated the badge of every American Airlines employee who has one. Anyone who does not pass the criminal background check will have his or her badge revoked. Prior to 9/11 and the passage of the new Aviation and Transportation Security Act, American was in full compliance with FAA regulations regarding the badging of airport employees.
“American cooperates daily, both at the headquarters and the field levels, with Customs and other law enforcement agencies on issues of a criminal nature, working with the various agencies in sting and/or surveillance activities to root out criminal activity. Many times it is the airline that brings such activity to the attention of the law enforcement agencies.”
However, according to Kleiman, all the background checks in the world will not protect the American public from potential harm if Customs management continues to cover up information in order to bolster careers, protect agency turf, or to prevent the agency’s image from being tarnished.
Kleiman points to the fact that in late fall of 2002, more than a year after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, about 120 current and former workers who had been issued security clearances at La Guardia or JFK International airports in New York were arrested or facing arrest.
Why? Because they had lied about past criminal records, immigration status or otherwise provided deceptive information about their identities. In some of those arrest cases, according to a press release issued by the U.S. Department of Justice on November 19, 2002, the security clearances in question were authorized by U.S. Customs.
A year later, trouble struck JFK again, when some 19 airport employees were charged in the fall of 2003 with participating in a large-scale narcotics importation conspiracy that involved the seizure of some 400 kilos of cocaine and hundreds of pounds of marijuana. The employees included baggage and cargo handlers as well as supervisors.
“... The defendants capitalized on their status as airport employees to circumvent inspection procedures as a means to import massive quantities of narcotics into the United States,” states a press release issued by federal law enforcement officials in the wake of the bust. “Utilizing their knowledge of international airline schedules, cargo unloading procedures and airline personnel assignments, the defendants and their associates conducted a decade-long narcotics importation ring.”
The government’s investigation into the importation ring began in the fall of 2002, “following several seizures of cocaine on Universal Airlines flights from Guyana,” according to the press release.
“Customs is not doing its job,” Kleiman says. “Anything that gets in the country goes through Customs. And people in the agency are not saying anything when they see problems, because they know if they rock the boat, they will get fired, or possibly even killed.”
Kleiman adds that in addition to filing an EEO complaint, she reported the alleged corruption and cover-ups by her supervisor to Customs Internal Affairs, the Treasury Department’s Office of Inspector General and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York. Those reports were made months prior to the September 11 terrorist attacks. She claims none of those agencies did anything to address the problems at JFK.
“It’s not an issue of putting more money into the agency, or combining it with some other agency,” Kleiman says. “It’s an issue of hiring highly qualified people who care. That’s the whole point. Since 9/11, people have gone back to going about their lives like it never happened. But it will happen again, unless something is changed.”
In fact, Kleiman, in a prepared statement, contends that four months prior to 9/11 she warned the U.S. Attorney’s Office in specific terms that the lack of security at JFK and the corruption within Customs could lead to a major tragedy.
“I told them (the U.S. Attorney’s Office) that if these (airline) employees had such easy access to the planes, they could place bombs and weapons on the planes,” Kleiman asserts in the prepared statement. “I further informed them that the airlines were not doing background checks on employees and many that were hired were illegals.
“I showed them the perjured evaluations (her job reviews) and they admitted that there were problems with Customs. ... The U.S. Attorney’s Office dismissed me by saying they would look into it and never got back to me. Customs fired me for raising these issues.”
For some two years, Kleiman’s charges were before the U.S. Office of Special Counsel. However, Kleiman says in August of 2003 she withdrew her case from that agency out of frustration with its failure to address her charges in a timely manner.
“After … years of investigation, with no closing date in sight, I decided to withdraw the OSC case and to put all of my energies into my federal court case,” Kleiman says.
Kleiman’s pending federal litigation assures that her corruption and discrimination allegations are not going away anytime soon. Her allegations also have attracted the attention of several congressional leaders who are not prone to subscribe to conspiracy theories. They include Democratic U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman as well as Republican senators Charles W. Grassley, Susan Collins and Richard Shelby — all of who have made inquiries on her behalf.
“Based on our review of Ms. Kleiman’s case and various news reports, we are deeply concerned about the specific accusations against JFK Airport security and U.S. Customs’ Special Agents,” states a Jan. 8, 2004, letter co-written by Shelby and Collins and directed to Robert Bonner, commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security. “Ever since, 1999, Ms. Kleiman has made assertions of incompetence, wrongdoing and possible criminal activity by law enforcement officials. We believe these accusations are too troubling to dismiss.
“Understanding the importance and significant steps your agency is undertaking to ensure the security and safety of our nation’s borders, we want to make you aware of this case and ask you to take a closer look at Ms. Kleiman’s allegations, particularly focusing on the conduct and operations of the U.S. Customs officials at JFK airport and what changes have been made.”
Lieberman’s interest in Kleiman’s case led him to look into her allegations that three federal agents at JFK died under suspicious circumstances in the early 1990s.
The agents were assigned to a drug unit at the airport that, Kleiman alleges, was overseen at the time by Thomas Flood — who would later become Kleiman’s supervisor. In a letter Kleiman sent to the OSC in July 2001, she claims that two of the federal agents died of heroin overdoses and the third committed suicide — allegedly after all three had been implicated in stealing drugs from their unit.
Kleiman says the deaths demonstrate how deeply rooted the problems are at JFK.
Customs responded in writing in April 2003 to Sen. Lieberman’s official inquiry into the matter as follows:
“In her letter, Ms. Kleiman raised issues regarding the deaths of former Customs Special Agents Thomas Sullivan and Thomas Calamia. Mr. Sullivan was arrested during June 1991 after it was determined he was involved in the theft of drugs from Customs’ custody. In February 1992, subsequent to his conviction in federal court, Mr. Sullivan took his own life.
“Mr. Calamia died in September 1992 while he was a Customs employee. Mr. Calamia’s death was investigated by Nassau County Police Department and ruled a drug overdose. Customs employees were not involved in the discovery of Mr. Calamia’s body and were not implicated in Mr. Calamia’s death. A subsequent investigation conducted by the Office of Internal Affairs determined that Mr. Calamia was involved in the theft of drugs from Customs’ custody.
“Special Agent Gary St. Hillaire was an employee of the Drug Enforcement Administration. Accordingly, BICE (the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, also part of DHS) possesses no records regarding the allegations of misconduct on the part of Mr. St. Hillaire. ...”
Kleiman claims that at a minimum, the drug-thefts and deaths are evidence that her corruption charges are not out of bounds when it comes to Customs’ operations at JFK.
She adds, “Three agents died, all within about a year of each other, and they were stealing drugs from their unit.”
Kleiman is not the only one to blow the whistle on the good-ol’-boy club at JFK International Airport.
During the same time frame that Kleiman was dealing with her turmoil at the airport, Frank Almonte, a special agent at Customs JFK office, also was dealing with his own set of problems stemming, he alleges, from the fact that he is Hispanic.
Almonte is among the named plaintiffs in the class-action discrimination lawsuit filed in federal court in May 2002 on behalf of some 400 former and current Hispanic Customs agents.
Among the claims made by Almonte in the class action litigation is that over the course of his career he “has constantly been asked by his Customs supervisors to work an undercover, monitor a wiretap, debrief a defendant, transcribe tapes and translate documents.”
As a result, the lawsuit charges, “case agents who are typically white non-Hispanic have benefited from Agent Almonte’s language and undercover skills, but Almonte has not in terms of his career progression.”
Almonte alleges he applied for numerous promotions between 1993 to 2000, but was never promoted. In each of those cases where Almonte sought and failed to get a promotion, a white non-Hispanic was chosen for the position, the class-action lawsuit alleges.
In October 2000, Almonte filed an EEO complaint regarding his failure to be granted a promotion. In January of the next year, Almonte finally was promoted, from a GS-12 grade to GS-13.
On top of failing to offer him a fair chance to advance his career, Almonte charges in the lawsuit that his contributions to Customs are seemingly not appreciated and, in fact, are undervalued by his Anglo supervisors.
“In 1992, after Almonte had transferred to the Financial Division of the New York/special agent in charge (SAIC) office, a group supervisor and senior special agent (both white non-Hispanics) called him into an office to convince him to perform undercover money-pickups from Colombian drug smugglers,” the class-action lawsuit states. “Senior Special Agent Robert McCrossen told Almonte, ‘This is so easy, I would have my teenage kids do it if I could.’ In 1997, a Hispanic undercover agent was shot and wounded and two suspects were killed during a money pickup involving New York/SAIC personnel and the Drug Enforcement Administration.”
Beyond having his career stunted and his work undervalued, Almonte, while working as an agent at JFK International Airport in the late 1990s, also was forced to endure the same type of racism and discrimination that Kleiman confronted, according to the lawsuit.
From the May 2002 class-action litigation:
“In February 1998, when Agent Almonte told narcotics smuggling Associate Special Agent in Charge (ASAIC) John Saldino that he had arrested several Dominican nationals on a controlled delivery involving 4 kilograms of heroin, Saldino’s response was ‘Those fucking people.’ On another occasion, Almonte was in the office gym listening to a Spanish music radio station. Saldino said to Agent Brian Aryai, ‘There he goes with that fucking music again. Does he think this is a foreign country?’ Agent Aryai also heard Customs Supervisor Tom Lorreto say that, ‘Ever since they let Hispanics in here, this job has gone downhill.’”
Gary Aldrich, founder of the Patrick Henry Center for Individual Liberty and a former FBI agent who specialized in investigating political corruption, says the underlying problem with federal agencies like Customs is that they “are so big, there is no way Washington can really manage them, beyond relying on hope and trust.”
If that is true, then the prospects for the newly created Department of Homeland Security are exceedingly dim. DEA’s Gonzalez echoes that concern, explaining that the creation of the new super bureaucracy is likely to magnify the already severe management dysfunction within the federal government.
“I personally believe the new department, absent appropriate protections for employees, will be a disaster,” Gonzalez says. “We have seen what happens (at agencies like DEA) with civil service protections. Without those protections (which are scaled back drastically in the new department), it will lead to a lot of abuse by managers.”
“We spend millions of dollars making sure we hire good people, and then we ship them off to field offices where they run smack into corruption,” former FBI Agent Aldrich says. “Then those agents are told, ‘Shut up or we’ll kill (your career),’ ... (while others simply) don’t want to rock the boat. And in the meantime, these (bad) guys are out there with guns and handcuffs.”
Kleiman has a slightly different take on Customs’ woes—one tied to the events of September 11. Kleiman says she is reminded of that “don’t rock the boat” mentality every time she looks into the void that once was the World Trade Center.
Well before the World Trade Center was attacked, Kleiman claims she “knew something bad like that was going to happen” because of the indifference she encountered within the federal government in relation to the problems at Customs.
“When that second jet came right over my apartment, I said, ‘Fuck Customs!’” recalls Kleiman, who lives a block and a half away from what is now Ground Zero. “Maybe now people will start to listen, but 3,000 people are already dead.”
Next in “Epilogue – Threshold of Conscience”:
The author draws some conclusions for addressing the pattern of reprisal, cronyism and corruption that has been exposed within U.S. Customs.
Read the rest of Bill Conroy’s Borderline Security:
Bill Conroy has worked as a reporter or editor for the past eighteen years at newspapers in Wisconsin, Arizona, Minnesota and Texas. His investigative reporting over the past five years has focused on corruption and discrimination within federal law enforcement agencies.
- The Fund for Authentic Journalism