Employees at the US Customs Service face ruthless drug traffickers and conniving smugglers nearly every day, but some agency workers say nothing compares with the pressures of dealing with their own bosses.
Although most Customs Service supervisors are talented professionals, some employees at the nation's oldest federal agency complain that a significant number of managers are abusing their authority, acting more like bureaucratic tyrants than public servants. They say whistle-blowers and other workers who anger such bosses risk retaliation.
Sanctions range from poor job evaluations to internal investigations that can strand workers in career limbo for years even if the charges are baseless, employees say.
The resulting lack of trust between Customs managers and employees is undermining the country's ability to police its borders and wage an effective war on drugs, these workers say. Some agents and inspectors question whether they can count on their supervisors' support during potentially life-threatening operations.
"Having to deal with our own management, with their threats and intimidation, is 10 times worse than dealing with the drug traffickers," says Crowley Forrester, a Customs inspector. He says his supervisor failed to provide him with promised backup during an attempted arrest of a group of undocumented Haitians in an area of Miami with a high crime rate.
Mr. Forrester had earlier angered Customs managers by writing a letter to a US senator detailing lax Customs enforcement of security violations at Miami International Airport.
"They don't retaliate, they destroy," says Michael Horner, a former Customs inspector in San Diego, who says he was forced to retire after accusing his bosses of corruption. "It is horrendous. I've been at this for 10 years. It's cost me my house, my family. It has cost everything."
The issue is not new to the Customs Service. In 1991, the Customs commissioner appointed a panel to investigate allegations of corruption and the existence of a "good old boy network" among Customs managers along the southwest border in Texas.
The panel's final report identified major management problems and suggested that similar problems existed throughout the agency.
The panel found in part: "There was an absence of management accountability and a perception of a collusive relationship between management and internal affairs. Customs' management systems failed to identify and correct these deficiencies." The panel found management problems at all levels of the bureaucracy - from Washington to the field - and noted an inability or unwillingness to correct them.
Upon accepting the panel's recommendations in 1992, a Customs statement said in part: "We have put together a comprehensive implementation plan that is just as hard-hitting as the report was."
But five years later, some Customs employees are asking, "What plan?"
"It is a joke," says James Roxby, a former Customs inspector in Miami who was demoted to evidence-room clerk after he raised questions about agents using an undercover luxury yacht for personal weekend fishing trips with their girlfriends.
After Mr. Roxby sent a letter to Customs headquarters and members of Congress disclosing use of the yacht and other problems, he received a note at his house. It said: "You [messed] up sending that letter. No more warnings. Yours is coming."
Customs Service managers in Washington declined requests to discuss the issue of retaliation against employees and whether the 1992 reforms have been effective.
But the agency's chief spokesman, William Anthony, says many would-be whistle-blowers are merely disgruntled workers who make outrageous allegations to the media and members of Congress to try to get even with supervisors.
"Out of 100 whistle-blowers, 60 of them are serious personnel problems," he says, meaning they are unhappy workers posing as whistle-blowers. Dealing with them ties up the agency in matters that have nothing to do with its primary mission, he says. "It is a tremendous drain on the government."
Mr. Anthony says the 1992 reforms were successfully implemented and are helping to ensure prompt action whenever legitimate whistle-blowers come forward.
Some lower-ranking employees aren't so sure.
Jeffrey Weitzman, a K-9 officer at the Orlando airport, says he has been harassed since 1990, when he raised questions in San Diego about his boss's involvement with drug smugglers along the Mexican border. "I tried ... to keep it all in-house, but nobody wanted to hear it," Mr. Weitzman says. "Whenever I tried to talk to my supervisors, I had the door slammed in my face."
Weitzman and his wife, Natalie, who is also a Customs employee, have requested three transfers in recent years because of what they see as continued harassment. In Arizona, a supervisor made obscene and threatening remarks to Mrs. Weitzman, and the couple received an anonymous threat on their unlisted home telephone in which the caller used an anti-Semitic term in referring to Weitzman's Jewish heritage.
After a transfer to Miami, Weitzman says, a supervisor there announced his disapproval of Weitzman's cooperation with an FBI probe of corruption at Customs in San Diego. The confrontation prompted the Weitzmans' transfer to Orlando.
Weitzman says the harassment is aimed at making him quit. "They just try to break your spirit," he says. The managers' rationale is: "Let's show them they have no place to turn and that we don't care. Maybe they'll just go away," he says. Weitzman isn't alone in questioning the validity of the agency's whistle-blower reforms.
The reforms are "smoke and mirrors," says an agent in Miami who asked not to be named. "The question is do we put them into practice?"
At the same time the panel's recommendations came out, four agents in Miami - Pat Roche, Rob Kammer, Eddie Cruz, and Nick Jacobellis - were battling with their bosses over the "loss" of 150 kilos of cocaine during an undercover operation.
At issue was whether managers gave permission for the 150 kilos to pass to drug dealers, hoping it would snare a drug lord. Such approval would be unusual, but the agents say they would never have "lost" the cocaine unless their bosses gave the OK.
The incident triggered probes, during which the bosses insisted no approval was given. It set up a confrontation: the word of the agents against that of their bosses.
Although all four agents had clean personnel records and were considered among the best at Customs, they soon found themselves under an investigative microscope for allegedly misusing undercover funds. To the agents, the investigation was trumped up by their bosses to undermine the agents' credibility.
In addition, supervisors assigned the agents to special duty. For the next three years they were required to report to a vacant building where they sat waiting for an assignment that never came. Four of the agency's most successful agents were, in effect, warehoused while investigators from internal affairs and other departments combed through their past operations looking for any irregularities. None were found.
One agent involved in the case, who asked not to be named, says he once believed that working hard and making big cases would earn him the support and respect of managers. No longer.
"It's the most dedicated guys who always get jammed up in this job," he says.