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

Robert Rodriguez had to go to the bathroom. The urge was inconvenient on this late June afternoon, the first day Rodriguez returned to work following an 11-week suspension. Inconvenient because Rodriguez was not on an allotted break, when he might leave the building and walk to his nearby apartment. Inconvenient because he was still a couple hours shy of closing time at his office, an unmarked, anonymous federal facility in downtown Fort Lauderdale. Inconvenient, most of all, because Rodriguez was not allowed to go to the bathroom by himself.

Instead the 45-year-old Vietnam vet -- a proud native of Brooklyn and five-year employee of the Social Security Administration (SSA) -- was followed to the bathroom by a man with a gun. The man was a uniformed officer of the Federal Protective Service, the police agency that protects federal sites.

Disquieting as this arrangement was, Rodriguez had to urinate. So he rose from his desk. Rodriguez was thinking: Maybe the guard won't follow me this time. Wrong. While Rodriguez unzipped his trousers, the guard stood in a corner and watched. Afterward the guard followed him out of the bathroom and stationed himself in plain view of Rodriguez's desk.

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
Leonard Wheeler helped Rodriguez blow the whistle by filing formal allegations
Joshua Prezant
Leonard Wheeler helped Rodriguez blow the whistle by filing formal allegations
Federal cop Leslie Hall (right), joined by a parking lot security guard and a Social Security Administration worker, threatens to sue a photographer
Joshua Prezant
Federal cop Leslie Hall (right), joined by a parking lot security guard and a Social Security Administration worker, threatens to sue a photographer
The unmarked home of the Fort Lauderdale Teleservice Center's 130 employees
Joshua Prezant
The unmarked home of the Fort Lauderdale Teleservice Center's 130 employees
Photographer Josh Prezant
W. Kelley Lucas
Photographer Josh Prezant

This desk is one of more than 100 in the cavernous, L-shaped sprawl of the Fort Lauderdale Teleservice Center (TSC), part of the SSA's huge federal bureaucracy. The desks are arranged in long straight lines -- two lines of desks along the lengthy part of the L, and three shorter lines along the base of the L. Each desk is manned by a Telephone Service Representative (TSR) who answers questions from the public about social security benefits.

Of these TSRs only Rodriguez was shadowed by the federal cops. Then again, only Rodriguez had so openly questioned the practices of his bosses. In letters to SSA higher-ups and other federal offices, he has doggedly sought explanations for a range of problems he perceives as either unfair or dangerous.

For example: Why do some employees sign time sheets that say they are working when they aren't? Why did one employee hold a second job, which she worked while on the SSA time clock? Why did one man, hired in July 1999, die four months later, after unintentionally defecating in the workplace on a number of occasions? And why did managers tell employees that the SSA would pay for any medical test they wished to take, without revealing the ailment that killed the man?

"There are a lot of whys," Rodriguez says, "but so far no because. They just decided to sit on it."

None of Rodriguez's supervisors or SSA officials would discuss his allegations with New Times. But their attitude toward him is clear enough from internal memos: They view him as a problem employee, and they have tried to characterize him as potentially dangerous and unpredictable. Earlier this year he argued angrily with union representatives and a supervisor in front of other employees, which resulted in not just his lengthy suspension but his constant surveillance by the federal cops.

Several of Rodriguez's coworkers corroborate his version of life at Fort Lauderdale's TSC, but none would agree to be identified on the record -- all said they feared losing their jobs with the SSA if they defended him publicly. While Rodriguez clearly has the best interests of employees in mind, his colleagues also concede that he shows a propensity to challenge authority.

With a thatch of close-cropped dark hair and thick glasses propped on a fleshy face, Rodriguez often appears bemused. He scours the New York Timesand local papers every day. He reads histories of the Third Reich and Stalinist Russia and plays war games. The son of a Spanish father and Puerto Rican mother, Rodriguez swells to more than six feet, two inches and weighs about 230 pounds. His polyester clothes appear too small to fit him well. Like a big, affable bear, Rodriguez moves slowly. And like many New Yorkers, he seems to relish the lively give-and-take of argument.

"He sort of can't back down once he sees something wrong," according to one TSC neighbor. "He's like Don Quixote. What he says is fair, but sometimes he's not too smart about it either."Rodriguez took the SSA job in 1995 as an attempt to put his life back together after a series of misfortunes. A 12-year postal service employee, Rodriguez says he was threatened with dismissal on three occasions, in part for challenging union officials and his bosses in the 1980s and making enemies. He finally quit the post office in 1990, spending the first half of the new decade trying his hand at various trades. He managed his mother's family citrus farm in Puerto Rico. He worked briefly as a stockbroker. He had a wife and son, and he owned a two-story house in Homestead, Florida.

Unfortunately this house was located directly in the path of Hurricane Andrew. On August 24, 1992, the storm literally blew Rodriguez's house away. At about the same time his wife left him. The breakup led to a rancorous divorce in which he battled, successfully, to retain joint custody of his son. Then Rodriguez's mother died, an event that sent Rodriguez into an emotional tailspin. He quit working for more than a year, living off his savings. In 1995 he took a part-time job in the SSA working the phones and moved into a small apartment less than a block away.

Rodriguez discovered he genuinely liked the people who called to ask questions about their benefits, and he liked the workers in the TSC. Like other telephone reps, each day Rodriguez would arrive at a desk equipped with telephone headgear, a computer terminal, and an ACD box. The acronym stands for Automatic Call Dispensing; the machine records the length and time of day of telephone calls.

Rodriguez and his coworkers took telephone calls from all over the country for six or seven hours a day -- questions about lost cards or late checks, disability payments, death-of-spouse payments, a host of others -- some lengthy and difficult, others amusing.

A fluent Spanish speaker, Rodriguez recalls an elderly Cuban immigrant who telephoned to say she hadn't received her check. "We always wait three days after a call to send out a check, but I assume she was a little senile and didn't understand this. She wanted to know where the treasure was. In Spanish the word tesoro can mean both treasure and treasury, and I thought she meant treasury, as in main headquarters. I was saying, "Well, ma'am, the buildings are in Washington, D.C., and they're made of stone….' Finally I figured out what she meant."

In another case a Haitian man wanted to make a claim for black lung disease. Rodriguez recalls explaining two or three times that "even though he was black and suffering from lung cancer, he didn't qualify" for the government's relief to help those afflicted with the infamous coal miners' disease.

Despite these moments of levity, many of the questions about social security benefits are grindingly complicated. TSRs are equipped with about ten weeks of training and updated with hourlong weekly refreshers. A certain level of stress is inevitable. "Working on the phones is really work, the calls just keep coming in, it's unrelenting," Rodriguez explains. "Some people get something like psychological carpal tunnel syndrome. It can be exhausting unless you know how to handle it. You breathe. You stay calm."

For the first year or two on the job, Rodriguez says, he took pleasure not only in the work but in most of the people. As time passed he tried to keep his growing frustrations under control, to avoid causing trouble. He began participating in union activities. He even joined the Sunshine Club, a group whose job was to celebrate employee birthdays, organize functions, and boost workplace morale.

Ironically this last decision had just the opposite effect on Rodriguez.

Becoming president of the Sunshine Club late in 1996, he began to notice a group of people who, in his opinion, weren't shouldering their fair share of the work on the telephones. "[Some] people who tried to do things in the club used it as an excuse not to be on the telephones," he claims.

He also began noticing other abuses of the system, especially by some supervisors who, he says, were consistently paid for time they didn't work. Just as he had at the post office years earlier, Rodriguez set himself up as a kind of watchdog. He explains his self-appointed role this way: "Nobody was rushing to the Batmobile to combat crime, and I just got tired of seeing it."

In 1997 the restive Rodriguez began tracking the TSC supervisors who appeared to goof off the most. He kept a record of their time away from the office when he happened to spot them coming and going. Rodriguez even went so far as to trail one supervisor three times to see what she was doing, a venture he could undertake as a part-time employee.

According to Rodriguez, the supervisor, Lydia Canino, went to the Galleria Mall to shop and occasionally took her sister, who also works in the center, or another employee. "I counted her out [of the office] on 17 occasions between 1997 and 1999," Rodriguez claims. "Those were just the times I saw her." Rodriguez says she was on the clock during those times.

Joining Canino on Rodriguez's list was Georgia Hiteman, whom he marked as late to work by as much as two hours on 31 occasions. Each time, he says, he checked the sign-in log and discovered that she was seeking pay for the missed time.

Neither Canino nor Hiteman returned requests for interviews.

When Rodriguez reported this to his immediate supervisor, Don Funaro, and asked about other employees who were getting breaks, Funaro ignored him. So Rodriguez began to question a wider range of activities he judged as problems too. For example, he asked why Shivella Kinsler, a fellow TSR and old friend of Funaro's, was allowed to work a second job while on the clock, when other workers were answering phones.

According to several employees, Kinsler supervised members of a private security business who worked in the federal building downtown. They say they heard her on the phone working out scheduling problems with them, or saw her "doing paperwork from that other job while she was sitting at her desk," in the words of one fellow TSR.

Kinsler did not respond to a request for an interview.

Throughout this period Rodriguez avoided going to the center's manager, Susan Madina. He says he wanted to avoid causing trouble for her. "She was the only supervisor trying to make the place better for us, but she just didn't have a lot of street smarts. They could get away with stuff on her, and if I made a stink, it could have come down on her." Rodriguez still regards Madina as "the most humane, compassionate, use-whatever-adjective-you-want-to-use manager I've ever seen."

In late October 1998, his fight with Funaro came to a head. Rodriguez took a 15-minute break -- unauthorized by Funaro -- and the supervisor nailed him for it, filing a reprimand and docking him 15 minutes' pay. Almost immediately Rodriguez filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claiming unfair treatment. The complaint would take a year and a half to be resolved, in favor of Rodriguez, who later received a $3.15 check for the docked time.

Despite his concerns Rodriguez says he was still fundamentally happy at work -- happy enough to become a full-time employee. But his attitude took a turn for the worse in February 1999, when Karen Shupler replaced his old boss, Susan Madina, as the new TSC manager in Fort Lauderdale.

Arriving from a smaller Social Security Administration office in North Miami, Shupler brought with her a reputation for toughness, say employees, and a plaque which would prove fortuitous in the mind of Rodriguez. The plaque read: La Rubia Peligrosa, recalls Rodriguez. The dangerous blonde.

Rodriguez says he gave Shupler time to get settled, and then -- because Supervisor Funaro wouldn't stop the problem -- he decided to let the new TSC manager know that some people were stealing time from her office or working second jobs on the clock. But Shupler, he says, did not take kindly to his efforts to police his colleagues and supervisors. None of these lesser transgressions -- or the apparent snubs by Funaro and Shupler -- appeared to bother Rodriguez or his colleagues as much as the case of Ty Keon, a blind TSR hired by Shupler in July 1999. Keon worked at the center for almost four months, the last months of his life. Only 32 years old, he suffered from a disease that still has not been specifically revealed to employees. In all likelihood, they believe, the disease was AIDS or hepatitis, and it killed Keon, but not before he left evidence of it everywhere.

Keon was unable to control his bowels and accidentally defecated several times in the break room. He also defecated or vomited on the way to the restrooms, in the men's restroom, and even in the women's restroom, where he rushed occasionally in an attempt to reach the nearest toilet, according to several employees.

Those employees, speaking on condition of anonymity, gathered at an International House of Pancakes restaurant to talk about the problem and to describe their fears. "It was messy," explained one woman, "and it happened a lot. They said it happened only a few times, but it happened more than that. And some of us helped Ty. I even saw [Rodriguez] carry him one time when he fell down."

According to these employees, Rodriguez sought to make Keon's case a cause, as well. He was astounded that the TSC's management would allow Keon to endanger other employees and would offer no concrete assurance why employees should remain unconcerned. Rodriguez accused manager Shupler of trying to shroud the problem in secrecy.

In December 1999, about three weeks after Keon died, all 130 employees of the Fort Lauderdale TSC were asked to gather. Shupler introduced a state health official and one of the SSA's senior lawyers, who had flown in from Atlanta for the meeting.

Employees were told that anyone who feared exposure to an infectious disease or blood-borne pathogen could make an appointment with a medical doctor and have tests performed. They were told that the SSA would pay for these tests with no questions asked.

When a TSR named Richard LaFleur raised his hand and asked what had killed Keon, several employees recall, SSA officials ignored him.

Employee concerns were so persistent that four months later Shupler sought to stanch anxieties by sending an e-mail to the entire office, reiterating the offer of free medical tests. "The members of the management staff, as well as our [union] team, are working together to provide all employees with a safe and healthy work environment," Shupler wrote. But she again refused to specify what disease had killed Keon.

Rodriguez decided not to let the matter rest. In the early months of this year, he began campaigning to become president of the employee union, known as American Federation of Government Employees Local 2014. "I was laying low, I figured the union would give me a platform to do something about [the TSC] if I could get in," explains Rodriguez. "Especially about the Keon case."

On April 5 Rodriguez -- on vacation and with some free time -- decided to head into the office and meet with potential union supporters. As soon as he arrived, he overheard his opponent, incumbent union president Julius Mellette, discussing the election with the unit vice president, Pat Davis. Rodriguez says this was a direct violation of a rule that forbids employees from politicking while on the clock. He watched the two enter a small, private office in the corner of the sprawling complex. When he sought permission to meet with a couple of employees who had agreed to support him, a supervisor refused to let them take a break.

"I just wasn't being treated fairly," Rodriguez claims. So he walked toward the closed office, then hesitated. "I'm from Brooklyn, and people from Brooklyn are known to be feisty; they don't like to be pushed around," he explains with a grin. "I decided not to let 'em break the rules."

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."

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.

"They didn't realize who Bob is," Wheeler says of Rodriguez. "He isn't a sheep; he won't just lay down, even when they try to fire him or intimidate him."

Egged on by Wheeler, Rodriguez decided to recast his three-year-old complaints about his obscure federal workplace into a public campaign. He fired off a barrage of letters to senior SSA officials in Birmingham and Atlanta and sought an investigation through the office of U.S. Rep. E. Clay Shaw(R-Hollywood), chairman of the Congressional Oversight Committee on Social Security.

Rodriguez was roundly ignored by officials and by Shaw, who forwarded the allegations to U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings(D-Miramar) in June, washing his hands of the potential morass. Hastings, in turn, wrote to Rodriguez to say the allegations had been forwarded to Shaw. Rodriguez heard nothing more.

Rodriguez also filed a complaint in late April with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administrationclaiming that workers in the TSC may have been exposed to a blood-borne pathogen.

OSHA is charged with investigating unsafe working conditions, either in other government agencies or in private businesses, and its officials took Rodriguez seriously. In written orders they gave Shupler 30 days to respond to the Rodriguez complaint with a report describing what had happened while Ty Keon worked in the TSC. Shupler was asked to investigate the matter, by now five months old.

In late May, Shupler asked for 30 more days to complete her investigation, the maximum allowed.

Finally in late June, almost 60 days after OSHA officials asked Shupler for an explanation, she filed an official response: No investigation was required because nobody had been exposed, she claimed. She still didn't say to what her workers may or may not have been exposed by the late Keon.

"As you stated in your letter," she wrote to OSHA officials, "there is an allegation of "numerous exposure incidents as defined by OSHA Bloodborne Pathogens regulations.' The Fort Lauderdale SSA office investigation of this matter in November, 1999, revealed that there had been no "exposure incident,' as defined by the OSHA regulations.

"We assume that the incidents… involved a now deceased SSA employee. On five occasions, in late July and early August of 1999, this employee became ill (involving vomiting and diarrhea). A GSA employee, a cleaning lady, wearing protective rubber gloves cleaned up after the sick employee. Even if the diarrhea or vomit contained visible blood or bloodborne pathogens… there was no physical contact with these substances and SSA employees."

Therefore, Shupler concluded, "it appears that SSA has no special duties as an employer under the OSHA regulations."

She also advised OSHA officials not to tell Rodriguez or other employees the full story. "A general description of SSA's investigation to the complainant without more detail, perhaps stating only that there was no "exposure incident,' may be warranted in this case," she wrote.

OSHA accepted Shupler's explanation and dropped the investigation.Meanwhile Rodriguez's initial 14-day suspension was extended to 11 weeks, though he was paid a full salary for nine of those weeks. He was allowed to return to work on June 26 and placed under the constant watch of federal police.

"Why didn't they fire me?" Rodriguez asks rhetorically. "Because they couldn't. My opinion is that it shows how weak their case is and how much they have to hide." Instead of firing him, he claims, his bosses want to force him out of his job by intimidation.

SSA officials in Fort Lauderdale and Atlanta would not discuss any of the complaints or the claims made about them or the Fort Lauderdale TSC. Reached by telephone Shupler was happy to provide general details about the SSA -- for example, she reported that the three teleservice centers in the southeastern United States last year answered more than seven million telephone calls. And she read from a Social Security handbook when asked what her office does: "Our mission, and I'm quoting here, is "to promote the economic security of the nation's people through compassionate and vigilant leadership and shaping and managing American social security programs.'"

Asked directly about Rodriguez and his allegations, Shupler snapped: "I will discuss none of those things with you."

Instead she directed questions to the agency's Freedom of Information Act specialists in Baltimore. They will discuss none of the allegations either. Specialist Ethyl Burrows said in late July that she had received a New Times Freedom of Information Act request concerning Rodriguez. She would talk about none of the reported problems.

"We have just scratched the surface of what you want, some of this might be subject to the privacy act, some might be communications between attorneys and so forth, which are privileged, none of this falls into the realm of things which would be automatically considered public information."

The computerized records showing employees' time on the phone, she says -- information which would show who was working when -- "are definitely not public." Neither is any information about Ty Keon, the employee who died.

Until last week the tense summer atmosphere in the Teleservice Center regarding Rodriguez hadn't changed, according to one of the employees. "They watch anybody who talks to him," she said. "If you go stand near his desk, you see [the cop] eyeballing you."

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.

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.

Castro, a self-proclaimed 18-year police veteran, was listed in 1991 as one of 13 city police officers with the most complaints from the public (ten complaints, three of them substantiated by Internal Affairs). Castro did not return a telephone message from New Times.

The arrest report cites Prezant for "Trepass [sic] after warning," and notes that "this officer observed the [defendant] acting very belligerent with the [federal] officer." Castro writes, "The defendant gave us no name of his employer because he didn't know his name," and claims Prezant refused repeatedly to leave the property.

"The funny thing is," responds Prezant, "I wasn't on the property. And I identified the New Times four or five times."

Meanwhile workers in the Social Security office watched the drama of a news story in the making from second-floor windows overlooking the street -- for a while. Then they were told to get back from the windows, according to an employee. She asked not to be identified for fear of losing her job.

Prezant, forced to remain in the city jail for several hours until Castro completed his "paperwork," finally emerged in midafternoon, a free man. A free man with a broken camera.

"It can be fixed," he says. "The [rewind] knob was broken. Luckily I had another roll of film I'd already taken. It was in my pocket." Two of those pictures appear in the story above.

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