Border Wars

Nearly a dozen people in the local INS office have filed sexual-harassment complaints against the agency

The way Lisa Willoughby tells it, her boss Jack Garofano crossed the line on a February morning in 1998. After the two discussed some personnel matters in Garofano's office, he stepped out for a cup of coffee. She stretched. When he returned, he allegedly stood beside her and stared at her breasts. "Goddamn, you're built," exclaimed Garofano, assistant district director for inspections in Miami's Immigration and Naturalization Service office. Willoughby says she bent over to obstruct his view. "You can't talk to me like that," she responded. "What, I can't compliment your tits?" Garofano replied. "No," Willoughby snapped. "That's sexual harassment."

The anecdote comes from a federal lawsuit Willoughby filed against INS in October 1999. Willoughby also alleges that, during the two years she worked for Garofano, he made lewd comments about her body, touched her inappropriately, showed her pornographic material, and attempted to blackmail her for sexual favors by offering promotions. And Willoughby claims deputy district director John Bulger, Garofano's supervisor and long-time friend, retaliated against her after she reported the misconduct.

Moreover the lawsuit claims Garofano subjected four of Willoughby's female co-workers to similar treatment. In the next few weeks, two of those women, who decline to be identified, plan to present their cases against INS in federal court, according to Roxanne A. Joffe, a lawyer who represents Willoughby and the two other plaintiffs.

Garofano's attorney, Loren Granoff, vehemently denies all the claims. His client didn't sexually harass or mistreat anyone, he asserts. Rather Garofano is victim of an orchestrated campaign to ruin his reputation. "When one has enough money to pay the filing fees, one can put just about anything in a complaint," Granoff snaps.

Garofano is but one of four officials at the Miami INS office who have been accused of everything from requiring that a female employee wear her hair a certain way to groping. At least nine complaints have been filed recently against the four; two additional grievances are under review. Leaders of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1458, which represents INS workers, suspect there are more. "That's only the tip of the iceberg," says one union official, who also declines to give his name because he fears retribution against the bargaining unit.

Union officials have even served INS with a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for information on sexual-harassment cases currently under investigation. The service has not responded to that inquiry or any of the other 83 unrelated FOIA queries the union has submitted. "They just don't want to answer, because it's detrimental to them," says the anonymous union leader. "They have the resources to block and stall," adds another unionist.

Robert Wallis, who took over as INS district director in 1996, declined comment on any specific cases. "We consider them internal matters, and we do not discuss them in public," he wrote in response to a list of faxed questions. But in general terms, he wrote: "The Immigration and Naturalization Service does not tolerate any unprofessional behavior on the part of its employees. We aggressively investigate any allegation of unprofessional conduct." New Times also left messages seeking comment for the four INS officials accused of harassment and John Bulger, whom Willoughby accuses of retaliation. Only one, Dora Jean Sanchez, returned the calls.

It seems INS leadership has paid little mind to the legacy of Anita Hill, who accused her boss (now U.S. Supreme Court Justice) Clarence Thomas of such behavior in 1991. After Hill described Thomas's inappropriate actions to Congress, sexual-harassment claims skyrocketed across the nation. Businesses began training managers to be more sensitive. Things seemed to change, at least in the private sector.

But in governmental agencies such as INS, allegations of sexual harassment were, and are, often thwarted by in-house investigative bodies, which favor the establishment. "The [INS's Equal Employment Office (EEO)] is worthless," says Susan Noe, an attorney currently representing an INS employee who filed a harassment complaint against the agency. "They limit the kind of evidence you can bring in and the cases get stuck." Noe declined to give details of the case, which has been under investigation for almost a year. She would only say that a male employee had accused his female supervisor of inappropriate behavior. (The public is not entitled to such information until the investigation is complete.)

Indeed the process that follows the filing of a grievance with INS is complicated, slow, and often discouraging. This is how it works: After an alleged victim enters a claim with the agency's EEO, investigators embark on fact-finding missions, then submit their conclusions to the Department of Justice, the INS district director, and the INS-EEO director in Washington, D.C. The aggrieved party can either request a hearing before an administrative judge, leave it up to the Department of Justice to make a finding, or file a federal lawsuit.

Often by the time a case makes it to court, the alleged perpetrator is lost in the bureaucratic shuffle. "It takes a tough person to really go through this whole thing," attorney Roxanne Joffe says. "It takes a terrible emotional toll on a person. I tell clients who come to me very depressed that they are not the exception; they're the rule."

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