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INS Workers' Union Criticizes LAX Manager

Labor: A letter accuses Port Director G. Thomas Graber of bias and ethics violations. Agency plans no action because the charges are anonymous.

June 01, 2002|PATRICK J. McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The union representing Immigration and Naturalization Service employees in the Los Angeles area has declared that its members have "no confidence" in a top INS manager responsible for day-to-day operations at Los Angeles International Airport and the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Local 505 of the National Immigration and Naturalization Service Council sent a scathing letter last week expressing low morale and "lack of confidence in the leadership, honesty and vision" provided by G. Thomas Graber, who has been port director since 1997.

Among the many misdeeds alleged, the union accused Graber--a 27-year INS veteran who heads a staff of more than 300 inspectors and other personnel--of "discrimination, double standards, ethics violations, unspeakable fighting incident, dishonesty, misappropriation of funds, misuse of government property" and "loafing on the job." The letter provided no details and union officials refused to expand upon it, citing the privacy of affected workers.

Graber declined to comment on the allegations, other than to say, "I certainly deny all of that." INS spokesman Francisco Arcaute said Graber "continues to enjoy the full support of the INS."

The four-paragraph letter was part of a well-documented pattern of friction between INS management and the workforce that has plagued the agency for years as the immigration workload has expanded dramatically, and particularly since Sept. 11.

A former INS port director, Arthur Alvarez, was removed from his LAX post in 1992 after female subordinates accused him in police reports of sexual harassment. Alvarez later pleaded guilty to battery and was ordered to undergo psychiatric treatment and placed on two years' probation. He remains a special agent with the INS.

The next year, an agency task force concluded that the INS work environment in Los Angeles "is sufficiently hostile and volatile that physical injury to managers and special agents is possible."

Some veterans of the agency say tensions have heightened since the Sept. 11 attacks highlighted the crucial role of the INS--working with the FBI and other agencies--in trying to prevent terrorist infiltration through airports, seaports and land borders.

LAX is regarded as especially sensitive because it was the entry point for 8.5 million international passengers in the most recent fiscal year, ranking third in the nation. LAX was also the initial port of entry for two of the Sept. 11 hijackers and was the target of a thwarted terrorist bombing plot in late 1999.

In February, some airport officers became enraged when a memo written on Graber's behalf seemed to discourage officers from responding to incidents of suspected terrorism in the interest of keeping an eye on arriving international flights. Top INS officials said ignoring terrorist threats was not the intent, but cited pressure to carry out inspections with limited staff.

The fight mentioned in the union letter alludes to a physical fracas between Graber and a subordinate at the Tom Bradley International Terminal in June 2000 that has become infamous among immigration officers. Both men were temporarily reassigned and received 14-day suspensions, according to sources, but subsequently returned to their airport duties.

INS employees "have little respect for [Graber] and demand that action be taken against this manager," said the letter, which was sent to INS District Director Thomas J. Schiltgen.

Schiltgen acknowledged the gravity of the allegations, but said he planned no immediate action since the letter was signed only "union representatives and bargaining unit employees"--without a specific name.

"While I take this letter very seriously," Schiltgen said, "if in fact this is the position of the union, then I would expect them to sign the letter."

Alfreda Clyde, president of Local 505, which represents the immigration workforce, said the letter was not signed because workers fear retaliation. Clyde said the charges had nothing to do with trying to win leverage on broad contract issues, since those are negotiated in Washington.

"The workers have witnessed all these things occurring, and they came to the union and they want something to be done," added Clyde, who said it was the first time the local had proclaimed no confidence in a top manager.

The letter demands immediate action, but did not call directly for Graber's removal. Schiltgen said he hopes specific concerns can be worked out in regular ongoing discussions between the union and management.

Such letters of no confidence are unusual but not unheard of, said John Irvine, spokesman for the American Federation of Government Employees.

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