Social Insecurity

When Robert Rodriguez decided to turn whistleblower and raise a stink about abuses in his federal workplace, he became public enemy number one

Rodriguez opened the door. Davis, described by some employees as a woman with a temper, came over and shut it in Rodriguez's face. "That's assault," Rodriguez said and threw it open again. He told the two: "You aren't supposed to be conducting union business on the clock."

Again Davis kicked the door shut, or tried to. Rodriguez imposed his substantial frame in the way. She later claimed in a written statement that she feared for her safety. But Davis also admitted that her temper flared at Rodriguez. "I came out of my skin for a minute and I asked him "What the HELL are you talking about?'" she wrote. "He began screaming and yelling."

No one who heard the incident claims that Rodriguez physically threatened Davis or anyone else. Witnesses agree he was loud. An uninvolved TSR sitting nearby later said Rodriguez kept telling Davis she had assaulted him. "Pat attempted to close the door again and Robert stated that that is "assault' and that he was going to call the Federal Protective Service," wrote the employee, Dave Evans. "Since I was on the telephone, I did not hear everything that was said, however Robert was very loud and the caller asked me what was going on."

Photographer Josh Prezant
W. Kelley Lucas
Photographer Josh Prezant

When supervisor Funaro ordered Rodriguez to leave, he did. But not before he uttered a sentence Funaro and Shupler would later use to characterize him as dangerous and to segregate him from other employees. Rodriguez asked Funaro: "Are you ready for April 19?"

On that day both men were due to appear at Rodriguez's EEOC hearing to determine his 18-month-old complaint against Funaro that claimed Rodriguez had been treated unfairly. But that also happened to be the day, five years earlier, when Timothy McVeigh blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

Funaro offered two accounts of the statement, one on the day Rodriguez made it, and one eight days later, after Funaro and Shupler had talked to SSA officials in Atlanta.

On April 5 Funaro wrote, "While he was walking away from my desk, he said in a very loud voice, "Are you ready for April 19?' I assumed he was talking about his current EEO complaints against me."

But eight days later Funaro changed his tune. In a letter of reprimand to Rodriguez, Funaro said this: "The reference to April 19 is a particularly sensitive issue in the federal government workforce considering the Oklahoma bombing that occurred on federal property on that date. For this reason, references to that date or occasion, especially when delivered in anger and agitation, carry a more-weighted significance. Not only were your comments insensitive, they were considered inflammatory."

So inflammatory, apparently, that Shupler called another meeting of all 130 employees and ordered them to have no contact with Robert Rodriguez, not even by telephone, a fact corroborated by the five employees who talked to New Times.

One employee says she resents those marching orders. "How does [Shupler] have the right to tell us who or who not to talk to?" she asks. "Robert is definitely not a threat -- he sincerely wants to better the office, and he's acting in a fair way. They tried to do their best to fire him, to put pressure on him or transfer him, but he's standing his ground. Most of the people here are with him, but unfortunately they're not with him publicly." The reason, she says, is fear. "The [managers] will definitely get rid of us if we identify ourselves."

On April 10, five days after the incident, Rodriguez returned to work from his vacation, arriving right on time, as usual. When he entered the office, he noticed Shupler standing near his desk. With her, hands on hips, were three uniformed members of the Federal Protective Service. Before this day the federal cops had appeared only three or four times per year, usually to give little lectures about maintaining security and safety. "We had some theft, so they'd usually talk about that," Rodriguez explains.

Rodriguez recalls Shupler addressing him as he approached her. "She said, "Mr. Rodriguez, you will leave the building. You will have no contact with other employees. You are suspended for 14 days. You will receive further notification about your job status after that time.' Then she handed me a letter." The short letter reiterated her orders, putting the suspension in writing.

Rodriguez was dumbfounded. He says he didn't think Shupler would go that far. As he left the building in front of the armed guards, he wondered what his boss was going to do next. A few days later he found out, after a call from a friend. Shupler had changed the codes and locks required to enter the SSA's Teleservice Center.

Once he recovered from the shock, Rodriguez decided on a familiar course of action: He would fight his bosses. He recruited an old friend, Leonard Wheeler, a former postal service employee and union official who makes a career of helping workers challenge unsafe or unfair working environments. Wheeler, a professional gadfly but not a lawyer, runs a Miami-based company called the Alamo Project, which has sought investigations of school boards, county governments, and the post office on behalf of disgruntled workers.

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