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

On August 7 it became even more tense. Rodriguez was having a normal day, as normal as any Monday can be, when the Federal Protective Service cop approached his desk and ordered Rodriguez to report to a small room. There he was confronted by two agents from the SSA's Office of the Inspector General. One of them was Rick Montero, according to a card he left with Rodriguez.

Montero said he had uncovered evidence that "I might have lied on my application five years ago for this job -- they claimed I was fired from the Post Office," Rodriguez recalls.

According to Rodriguez, Montero threatened him with talk of a possible felony, possible arrest, possible jail time. "Pure intimidation," says Rodriguez. "And yes, it worries me." Montero did not return a telephone call asking why he confronted Rodriguez at the Teleservice Center or who had ordered him to do so.

Regularly escorted to the restroom by a federal cop, Robert Rodriguez believes his boss is using intimidation to make him quit
Joshua Prezant
Regularly escorted to the restroom by a federal cop, Robert Rodriguez believes his boss is using intimidation to make him quit

As soon as the agents walked out of the office, Rodriguez glanced around for a supervisor. His heart was racing, he says. He was shaking slightly from the stress of long confrontation. The only person he could see was Shupler. So he walked toward her, followed by the uniformed federal cop. On the spot he asked her if he could begin taking some of his accumulated 240 hours of leave. She agreed, and Rodriguez walked out of the building. He has yet to return, spending this week on a scheduled vacation Rodriguez had arranged with his bosses months ago.

But he will. "They can fire me, but I'm not quitting," he insists. "I'm going to see this through; it's important, even though I'm bound to suffer for it. Whether I stay or not is no longer the issue. We deserve better treatment. We're Americans."

Free the Press
Photographer Josh Prezant didn't know it when he first stood on a public sidewalk and began to take pictures of a Social Security office, but within hours he would be threatened with a lawsuit, verbally abused, struck by a police officer, and arrested. His camera would be opened and his film exposed.

Prezant says that during the incident a Fort Lauderdale cop called him "a little bastard," "a moron," and "an asshole." Prezant also claims he was ordered to "shut the fuck up" and to "shut your mouth before I shut it." As a freelance photojournalist, Prezant had encountered hostile environments before, but nothing this antagonistic.

The photographer hired by New Times Broward• Palm Beach says he wasn't told what he had done to merit arrest nor was he read his rights by the arresting officer, Anthony Castro of the Fort Lauderdale Police Department, before Castro slapped the handcuffs on him August 11. "It was weird; the whole thing was weird. I couldn't believe it," Prezant says.

His ordeal started about 7 a.m. with the kind of task news photographers routinely accept when they shoot stories about public officials: photograph office manager Karen Shupler as she arrived for work. The assignment was part of a larger story exploring the claims of an employee who alleges that Shupler has covered up wrongdoing in the office of 130 federal workers. (See "Social Insecurity" above.)

When Prezant first appeared on the street with his camera, most employees had not yet arrived. But an armed officer of the Federal Protective Service (FPS) emerged from the building to confront Prezant. The officer, Leslie Hall, was doing his job: His police agency is charged with protecting federal workplaces, a task that became more difficult and costly after the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City.

Hall was armed with more than a job description and a pistol; he also carried an opinion that Prezant should not be allowed to photograph either the building or employees, even from a public sidewalk. Neither Hall nor FPS police in Fort Lauderdale and Atlanta returned calls by press time asking them to describe the parameters of their authority at the unmarked building on 300 NE Third Ave.

"I don't want you photographing me or any of the employees who work here," Hall ordered. He also commanded Prezant to leave the area. When Prezant began taking pictures, Hall shouted, "If I see myself in the paper, I'll sue you."

Before long another Federal Protective Service cop arrived to counter Hall's order, telling Prezant he could photograph anything he pleased as long as he stayed off the property, which is private. The building is owned by Miami-based Venture 1, Inc.

Shortly before 10 a.m., Fort Lauderdale police arrived, led by Castro, who told Prezant to leave. When Prezant asked for Castro's name or badge number, Castro refused. So Prezant began shooting pictures "to document who he was. Then, as I was taking pictures of him, he took his left arm and swung it at me, striking my camera and my face" and knocking the camera out of Prezant's hands. "I was stunned and stood still, and in a matter of moments, I was cuffed in a rough manner."

Prezant had taken seven frames of Castro approaching and hitting him, but the camera was opened and the film exposed, ruined during Prezant's jail stay. Not one shot could be developed.

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