By Francisco Alvarado
By Trevor Bach
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
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More than two years before the September 11 attacks, a seasoned federal immigration officer named Mary Schneider vehemently complained that Islamic visitors who were possibly terrorists were moving into the Orlando area. She told Immigration and Naturalization Service officials that hundreds of aliens, some of whom she suspected were tied to Osama bin Laden, were illegally gaining residence. She further alleged that several INS supervisors had accepted bribes in return for allowing those aliens to remain in the country.
Rather than investigate Schneider's complaints thoroughly, the INS began a campaign of retaliation against the 21-year immigration employee that nearly led to her termination, says David Ross, a Los Angeles-based attorney who represented her. The agency painted her as prejudiced against Muslims and charged her with insubordination and other administrative offenses, Ross alleges.
Schneider, who works as an adjudications officer at the INS and is responsible for determining whether visitors can become permanent U.S. residents, filed last year as a whistle blower with the federal Merit System Protection Board. During MSPB hearings on the matter, the board ruled in Schneider's favor, "which means that from now on and forever, if they [INS supervisors] take action against her, it will be presumed they are retaliating against her," Ross says, adding that the MSPB "blew the INS out of the water."
The immigration service is appealing the MSPB's ruling.
As she battled her employer, Schneider also repeatedly asked the Department of Justice, which oversees the INS, to investigate her claims. In May 1999 Schneider mailed her allegations to the FBI's Anti-Terrorism Joint Task Force in New York City. On March 28 of this year, Schneider warned Attorney General John Ashcroft in a letter that national security was threatened and pleaded for an investigation. The claims in her letter, which was obtained by New Times,include the following:
She has information from five informants on "long- running, extensive, felony bribery conspiracies engaged in by Orlando INS and staff at a former [unnamed] Congressional office." The bribery ring involved "over 50 Islamic Muslim Moroccans, an unknown number of whom had ties" to Ihab Ali, an Egyptian who lived in Orlando before he was imprisoned in 1999 in New York City for ties to Osama bin Laden and the East Africa embassy bombings.
INS officials stole cash and jewelry from illegal aliens who had been detained.
Records of more than 200 felony immigration fraud cases were secretly removed from her office.
Her investigation "has been suppressed and covered up" with the use of "criminal coercion, intimidation, and harassment of outside informants and myself by select officials."
On August 9, just a month before the New York and Washington, D.C., suicide bombings, Schneider complained to Sue Armstrong, deputy director of investigations for the INS Office of Internal Audit (OIA). "Never once in three years did I receive any verbal or written response from the FBIother than... letters informing me that my information was forwarded to the FBI in Tampa," wrote Schneider.
A week later, on August 16, the Department of Justice notified Schneider that her allegations had been forwarded to Guy Lewis, U.S. attorney in Miami, who presides over the South Florida district. On September 11 Schneider wrote to Lewis: "In light of the multiple terrorist attacks on our American soil today, I am forwarding the enclosed documents in hope this material will finally be taken seriously and immediate action taken to reduce and in some way minimize what will assuredly be future terrorist attacks on Our Beloved America."
Aloyma Sanchez, Lewis' spokeswoman, refused to comment on the case because it is a pending matter. The INS also refused to comment about Schneider's allegations. INS spokeswoman Patricia Mancha said only that all allegations made by INS employees are reviewed and that those with merits are fully investigated.
Schneider's current attorney, Fort Lauderdale labor lawyer Donald Appignani, disputes that claim. Appignani, who has represented numerous INS employees and who also refused to comment specifically on Schneider's case while it is pending, says OIA is notorious for systematically protecting INS higher-ups. Indeed, evidence suggests that the OIA -- and deputy director Armstrong in particular -- has routinely cleared supervisors accused of wrongdoing. Former OIA investigator William Congleton, who is still with the INS, swore under oath that Armstrong "does not want allegations against managers, generally, substantiated" in a September 1999 deposition taken in the case of another INS whistle blower, Neil Jacobs. "She likes to see managers exonerated.... Her view is... that her job is to protect management and to enforce rules and regulations against members of the bargaining unit."
Armstrong, when reached at her Washington office, declined to comment. INS media director Russ Bergeron says that the INS, under rules of a legal settlement, could not discuss the Congleton deposition. But he did defend the OIA, saying, "Whatever decisions are made [by OIA] are based solely on the facts and the law and have nothing to do with whether a person is affiliated with union or management."
Whatever the merit of her allegations, Schneider's warnings certainly proved prophetic. Numerous Orlando ties to the suicide bombings and bin Laden have been uncovered both before and after the attacks -- so many that the Orlando Sentinel recently suggested that Central Florida should be dubbed "Terroristland."
Ali, an Egyptian national, drove a cab in Orlando before the FBI tied him to bin Laden and jailed him in 1999. Intriguingly, Ali took flight training in 1993 at a school in Oklahoma that has subsequently been linked to some of the September 11 terrorists. Since the attacks, it has been discovered that former Orlando resident Ziyad Khaleel, 37 years old, bought a $7500 satellite telephone that wound up with bin Laden in Afghanistan, according to media accounts. Another Egyptian immigrant living in Orlando, Hady Omar Jr., was arrested in Arkansas the day after the attacks because authorities found he'd made airplane reservations for three of the hijackers. And relatives of suspected September 11 ringleader Mohamed Atta have also lived in Orlando. One of them, a man named Majed Atta, abruptly left the area in September.
The suspects identified in Schneider's complaints "were from areas where there were terrorists and their backgrounds troubled her," Ross says. "She didn't like the way they got into the country or what they were doing here."
Contacted by New Times, Schneider declined to comment at length, saying only that she had gathered a lot of evidence and still seeks a full investigation. "I would like to see criminal activity stopped, but I don't want to point my finger at the government at this time," she said. "We all need to be supportive of our government since September 11."
Ross, her onetime attorney, is unafraid to say that the INS, the FBI, and the Justice Department failed. "They dropped the ball in a big way," he says. "I was shocked that the Justice Department never investigated this. I don't think INS officials thought that what happened on September 11 would ever happen. Now people are actually going to look at this. Had the government followed [Schneider's] philosophy, we probably would have stopped some very bad people.
"[Schneider] would say, "David, you don't understand -- we are in danger. They are sending these terrorists into this country, and I can't understand why more isn't being done. They are going to commit acts of terrorism in this country,'" Ross recalls.
"She happened to hit the nail right on the head."