Stalin Would Be Proud

The dismissal of six workers from a local office of the Department of Children and Families is one of the most surreal governmental dramas to play itself out in some time. Certainly you recall the incident. On March 4 an aide to state Sen. Rudy Garcia was accompanying the senator's 94-year-old grandmother to the Hialeah DCF office to inquire about her food-stamp eligibility. The aide, Francis Aleman, claims she and Garcia's abuela were treated rudely. She complained to DCF brass in Tallahassee and voilà, everyone up the chain of command got the axe. Garcia happens to sit on two committees that fund and supervise DCF, and the senate is about to vote to confirm DCF Secretary Jerry Regier's permanent appointment.

Two of the fired employees had not even worked at the Hialeah office for one and a half months. They never saw, heard, or talked to the grandmother. The day they were canned they must have felt like characters in a Kafka novel, complete with self-important politicians (and their aides), obsequious bureaucrats, and a labyrinthine system so mindless that once set in motion, it couldn't be stopped.

This is as absurd as it gets. First, what the hell is the grandmother of a state senator doing on food stamps? Much less a senator who in 2001 listed his net worth as $100,212, and his income as $63,829. "She's an American citizen and she wants her independence," Garcia explained to me. "I can't tell her what to do. This is a nominal amount, around $30 a month."

Then the senator, who earns $29,328 as a legislator and derives the rest of his income from a family flooring and tile business in Hialeah, added, "We're not a rich family."

Okay, he's from working-class Hialeah. Good for him. And his grandma is stubborn, maybe a little eccentric. That's cute. But shouldn't Garcia explain to her that food stamps are for people who actually need them? And, um, he's a Republican? In fact he supported the senate's recent budget proposal, which includes deep cuts to nursing homes and would assess a fifteen-dollar payment to people who go to hospital emergency rooms for inappropriate reasons.

Garcia maintained he didn't ask Aleman to take his grandmother to the DCF office. "Francis has been with me a long time," the senator said. "My grandmother is like her grandmother." Aleman even used her own time to help Grandma. She requested two hours of comp time that day, according to records provided by the Office of the Senate President. Of course she did -- otherwise people would ask why she was running personal errands for the senator on the public's dime (Aleman earns $37,248 a year). One problem: She originally put in for comp time on March 11, seven days after the incident. Then on April 21, more than a week after the first news story appeared, she claimed she made a mistake and asked to have the comp time applied to March 4.

The grandmother originally had an appointment scheduled for March 25, but came early instead. When Aleman and her charge arrived about 1:45 p.m., the one receptionist on duty, Jessica Frenes, told them the wait would be long for an unscheduled visit and they might be better off returning the next day. I don't know the exact words exchanged, but short of hurling rotten tomatoes at Aleman and Grandma, I can't imagine Frenes doing anything that could be the basis to fire five additional people.

Nonetheless, outraged at the delay, Aleman whipped out her cell phone and called DCF deputy director for legislative affairs Joyce Sealey in Tallahassee, who conferenced the call with the Hialeah office. Moments later building administrator Teresa Rio, like a rabbit with greyhounds at her tail, scrambled downstairs and whisked Grandma through the food-stamp process. Meanwhile anyone not related to a state politician was pushed to the back of the line.

Frenes was fired March 14 for discourtesy, if you believe DCF. More likely, according to Roberta Fox, the lawyer for the six workers, she was fired "for telling the grandmother she may have to come back." Frenes's supervisor, Yrma Mazorra, was also fired, as was Caridad Galdo. I guess Rio was fired for not scrambling fast enough.

But the strangest terminations took place a dozen miles away. Deborah McClendon had been Frenes's supervisor before being transferred from Hialeah to the north central office on 79th Street and NE Second Avenue -- back in January. This past November she had the audacity to give Frenes a positive evaluation. That's why she was fired. "Deborah was called and it was hinted that she could revise [the evaluation]," Fox asserts. McClendon demurred. "To be fair, she wasn't officially fired because she wouldn't revise the evaluation. She was fired because she wrote a good one in the first place," Fox dryly notes. And just to be thorough, Pedro Rodriguez, who like McClendon had been a supervisor in the Hialeah office before leaving in January for the north central office, was also fired. Neither had any disciplinary problems. It's as if Stalin had returned from the grave to teach DCF how to airbrush inconvenient people and facts from reality.

Already the backlash is fierce. Garcia is telling anyone who will listen that he had nothing to do with dismissals. "I didn't request the firings," he insisted. "I don't want the firings. And if these people were fired for this reason only, I object."

Fox says that doesn't ring true. "I have reason to believe that Garcia was told of the plan to fire the workers and that he indicated it was a good plan," she says, pointing to an office worker's notes indicating Garcia complained to Regier and they discussed firing people.

Regier has said his agency will re-examine the firings. (DCF has offered to rehire Frenes, but not the others.) Maybe the legislature should re-examine hiring Regier. He's already shown he has squishy ethics. When Governor Bush first appointed him back in August, Regier denied authorship of an essay carrying his name that appeared in a fundamentalist Christian magazine; it espoused beating children as sound discipline. He did take credit for another one exhorting wives not to work outside the home.

Here's what should be done: Give everybody back their jobs. Get Aleman to apologize for trying to cut to the head of the line. Get Garcia to persuade dear old Grandma to give up her reliance on government cheese. And get Regier a job in the new Iraq, where women cover their hair, there's a long tradition of political toadyism, and a good whipping is not out of the question.


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