By Terrence McCoy
By Allie Conti
By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
Finally Ramirez recalls a box on the floor outside section chief John Woods' office. A picture of Elián was adhered to its side, and "KICK ME" was handwritten below it. "I took offense," Ramirez says. "There were so many things like this that shouldn't happen in a professional atmosphere."
Even if we forgive INS supervisors for their cavalier behavior, it is harder to forget several other incidents that seem to show that officials tried to cover their tracks.
Cuban Americans heaped criticism on U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno after the raid. They also scolded the immigration service for participating. Florida INS officials, several of whom had been appointed to clean house after a 1996 scandal called Kromegate, apparently took a lesson from the past. That incident, which involved officials' attempts to hide unacceptable conditions at Miami-Dade County's Krome Avenue Detention Center from congressional investigators, was uncovered after inspectors found backups of incriminating e-mails that had been erased.
A few days after the meeting at the American Legion Hall, Ramirez says, section chief Mario Cavallo stepped out of his office on the ninth floor and told a group of agents: "Listen up, I need you to delete everything possible from your computers, including e-mails, concerning the Elián González raid." Only about five people were present at the time, the agent recalls, and no one questioned Cavallo. But Ramirez says he and others understood the order to mean one thing: Dump any information that might reflect badly on the agency.
"I have never heard anything like that in all my 15 years in the service," Ramirez comments. "And Cavallo is the kind of guy, whenever he gets an order from a higher-up, he passes it on. He doesn't do anything unless he is told by a manager."
Ramirez says he had no incriminating e-mail in his computer because he had not been part of the Elián strike team until the day before the raid, so he didn't remove anything. He assumes that others, who had been in the loop, deleted e-mails that may have been public record. Such destruction, if consciously done to avoid scrutiny, could violate federal law. Moreover Ramirez says two special agents from units overseen by Cavallo were later transferred to the computer department. He posits they may have been assigned to get rid of backups.
That the brass issued such an order seems plausible to Magee, the union chief. After Kromegate, he says, "the senior managers deleted everything, then told the internal affairs investigators it didn't exist. But they forgot to... delete the e-mails from the system."
Ramirez believed things had gone too far. So he contacted attorney Appignani. He also spoke with Magee. Both advised him to contact the Department of Justice's Office of the Inspector General, which investigates complaints from employees and the public. Ramirez declined. "Nobody trusts OIG," he explains. "You can't talk to the people you're supposed to go to, because everybody's connected. If you report something, it comes back to haunt you. Everyone knows that."
"There's an incestuous relationship between OIG and the special agents," Magee contends. "It's getting better, but there's still a problem."
Pressure on the INS -- and Ramirez -- increased this past September, when Lazaro González and his family sued the federal government over the Elián seizure. The Department of Justice, which oversees the INS, assigned attorneys to represent many of the service's South Florida employees, including Ramirez. The development worried Ramirez. He didn't want to lose his job, but if called to testify, he believed he would have to discuss the jokes and overt anti-Cuban sentiment at headquarters. So he approached INS district counsel Daniel Vera. "I didn't want to lie," Ramirez remembers. "Dan told me, "Don't worry about it, if you have any kind of evidence that is detrimental toward the service, the DOJ attorney will make sure you don't take the stand.'" To Ramirez that comment implied a cover-up.
So Ramirez told Appignani the time had come to publicize his concerns. Still he didn't want his name in the press, because he feared he would be fired. So, with Ramirez's permission, Appignani contacted González family lawyer Ronald Guralnick and volunteered to provide a deposition describing conditions at INS headquarters that would buttress the plaintiffs' case. One condition: Appignani wouldn't disclose his clients' names. (Appignani now acknowledges that he misled Guralnick and others by implying there were multiple complainants. U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno later forced Appignani to release his client's name.)
In early January Appignani's charges of anti-Cuban sentiment hit the national news. Several networks and at least 14 U.S. newspapers picked up the charges. The labor lawyer even appeared on The O'Reilly Factor, a popular national Fox News show hosted by Bill O'Reilly, an unabashed shill for the far right.
Ramirez's name was not used by the media, but INS supervisors knew he was the source of the information. Through the March 2000 complaint about his supervisor, his name had been linked to Appignani. Soon after the newspaper and television reports came out, someone scrawled the threatening message on the rear passenger window of Ramirez's car while it was parked in the locked INS garage.