Five civilian employees at Edwards Air Force Base, who contend they were summarily barred from the military facility after being unjustly accused of drug use, filed a class-action suit Monday saying they were denied due process and a chance to defend themselves.
Dan Stormer, the lawyer representing the workers, contends that thousands of civilian employees at military bases across the country are similarly barred from returning to work each year without hearings.
The alleged practice, he argued, violates civil rights and ignores earlier court rulings that guarantee a hearing before civilian employees with security clearance can be barred from a military base. "This is typical governmental arrogance," he said.
An Edwards Air Force Base spokesman said that standard procedures for barring employees were followed "precisely" in dealing with the five class-action suit plaintiffs and 12 co-workers also barred from the base in January.
Military policy, based on case law, does not require hearings in such cases, said the spokesman, Lt. Col. Jan Dalby. Whether someone is barred from the base is up to the base commander's discretion, he said.
Dalby said that the employees were simply barred and that their security clearances were not at issue in the present case.
Stormer disputed that, saying that the military was attempting to draw a technical distinction to sidestep court rulings.
As recently as six years ago, the attorney noted, a U.S. district judge in Los Angeles ruled that 18 civilian firefighters barred from returning to their jobs at an Air Force plant in Palmdale were entitled to hearings. The men were ultimately cleared of drug-related allegations, reinstated and awarded $1 million in back pay, he said.
Stormer, who also litigated that case, said he based it on a 1959 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Greene vs. McElroy, which declared that government employees with security clearances were entitled to a hearing before being barred from their jobs on military facilities. The firefighters--as well as the workers involved in the newly filed suit--had security clearance.
"The Department of Defense has adopted a nationwide policy of ignoring this (U.S. Supreme Court) ruling," Stormer said. "Without any hearing or chance to rebut allegations on drug use, the plaintiffs (at Edwards) were barred from entering the base by the base commander."
Defense Department policy, he added, leaves the fate of civilian employees' jobs to the whim of base commanders.
The class-action suit was filed on behalf of 450,000 civilian employees who have security clearances for work on 871 military facilities nationwide, Stormer said.
Stormer added that a spot-check of about 20 military installations across the country indicated that there were perhaps as many as 2,000 civilian employees barred from military bases each year without hearings.
At Edwards Air Force Base, about 150 civilian workers are barred each year for allegedly using drugs or for other misconduct, including drunk driving or dereliction of duty, said Dalby, the base spokesman.
A Defense Department spokesman in Washington said that the agency had no immediate comment. An Air Force spokesman in Washington also declined comment without first reviewing the lawsuit.
In the Edwards case, a months-long investigation last fall into illegal drug use among employees of a military contractor on the base led to confessions by 11 workers, said Dalby. In January, they and six others were barred from the base.
Stormer said that none of his clients--four women and a man-- were among those who confessed. At a press conference Monday in Stormer's office, the four women vehemently proclaimed their innocence and charged that they had not been given a chance to defend themselves. The women worked for Computer Science Corp., which contracts its services to the base and employs about 1,000 people there, according to the women.
Josephine Baker, 30, a word processor, was the only one among the plaintiffs to be legally charged in the case. She said the government unexpectedly dropped the drug-related charges against her when she appeared for a court hearing earlier this year.
Although she was not fired, Baker, like the others, lost her job when she was no longer allowed to enter the base.
She said she had to withstand "ridicule and humiliation" over the loss of her job and suffered a drastic pay cut when she took a secretarial job to replace her military one.
"I hope this lawsuit shows the government they have to abide by their own laws and not destroy people's lives," she said.
Leslie Fagan, 32, said the loss of her job cost her the respect of her son. Unable to find another job, the data-entry worker has moved with her teen-age soon back to her parents' home in Lancaster and has resorted to receiving welfare.
Several years ago, when she got off the welfare rolls, she said she promised herself and her son "we'll never have to do this (receive welfare) again."
When she saw herself forced to do so again, Fagan said she cried and apologized to her son. "I thought the Bill of Rights was for all citizens," she said. "But I've been told it does not apply at military bases."
Fagan and the other plaintiffs said they offered to take drug and polygraph tests to prove their innocence during the military investigation but base officials did not take them up on the offer.