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An Inconvenient Woman

Fired from her job as a U.S. customs agent, Diane Kleiman has filed a lawsuit against her former employer with explosive allegations of anti-semitic slurs, corruption, and possible theft. But it’s her charges of lax airport security that make it a case everyone should worry about.

A biting February wind was blowing through Battery Park City when Diane Kleiman returned home one evening after a long day at work. Kleiman, a rookie special agent for U.S. Customs who’d been at JFK only a month, had barely hung up her coat when she was beeped to come back to the airport. Two Haitian men had been stopped trying to leave the country with what an inspector told her was $750,000 in cash wrapped in newspaper and aluminum foil and stuffed inside their suitcases. For Kleiman, a former Queens prosecutor who had traded her conservative suits and leather briefcase for a badge and a gun, it would be her first opportunity at JFK to handle a real case.

By the time Kleiman reached the airport, the investigation was well under way, with the suspects already fingerprinted and in the process of being interrogated. Walking through the bland, low-slung building, Kleiman saw one of the other agents on the case alone in a room with the money. “He was violating procedure, so I volunteered to stay with him,” she says. “But he got really hostile, so I walked away.”

Then a surprising thing happened: When it came time to do the paperwork on the seizure, she says, the $750,000 had somehow shrunk to $452,000. She reported this promptly to her boss, group supervisor Thomas Flood. His response was even more surprising: “Shut up and do what you’re told,” she claims he said to her.

According to Kleiman, Flood went on to explain that the final, “official” count was the only one that mattered, not the one done at the scene by the inspectors who made the stop. And when the ROI (report of investigation) was written, she says, he forced her to record $496,000 as the unofficial count at the time of the seizure, and $452,000 as the final tally. He told her nobody would care about a $44,000 discrepancy. He was right. No one ever asked about it.

In the days following, Kleiman says, she began to be frozen out. “Agent Flood was angry that I tried to make an issue of the cash,” Kleiman says now. “So he ordered everyone in the group, the financial-investigations unit, to stop talking to me.”

Still, there was plenty of opportunity to observe. Kleiman saw what she felt was a pattern of incompetence and outright theft by agents. More alarming, especially in hindsight, were critical security lapses at the airport. Kleiman’s most serious charge was that countless people, including minimum-wage employees who’d probably never had a background check and were sometimes even in this country illegally, had unfettered access to the planes while they were being cleaned and refueled between flights. Once they got on the ramps—the supposedly restricted area where the planes sit parked at the gates—baggage handlers, maintenance workers, food-service employees, and ground personnel all had unmolested access to the aircraft. They could walk onto a plane, hide a weapon or place a bomb somewhere, and walk off without being questioned.

Access to the ramps requires only an I.D. card shown at one of the checkpoints. No metal detectors, no personal searches, no questions asked. And the I.D. cards were often issued to employees of outside contractors who made their own decisions about whether to go to the trouble and expense of background checks.

When she reported these lapses to Flood, she was told she needed to learn to be a team player. “ ‘Otherwise,’ ” she says he boldly told her, “ ‘your life at this agency will be miserable and very short.’ ”

Kleiman quickly found out her boss wasn’t kidding. After five months, she was transferred to a different unit at JFK. Then, in June 1999, she was called to a meeting with Marvin Walker, the supervisor in charge of all Customs agents at JFK. She was asked to lock up her gun before she went into his office.

Walker wasted no time on pleasantries when Kleiman sat down. Bluntly, he asked her to resign. He told her that if she complied, they would make no effort to retaliate against her. When Kleiman refused, Walker spent 45 minutes trying to change her mind. Finally, he fired her—giving her ten minutes to clean out her desk and leave the building. The last words she remembers hearing Walker say were “You’ll never even collect unemployment.”

Diane Kleiman is an intense, 42-year-old woman with flaming-red hair. And, as whistleblowers often are, she’s an inconvenient person. She’s high-strung. She’s aggressive. She repeats herself. She can be exhausting. You wonder how you’d behave if you were her boss—which is what makes her case so complicated.

Before arriving at the Customs department, Kleiman had worked on Wall Street, done stints at the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and had volunteered for Barry Scheck’s Innocence Project. Most recently, she’d spent six years as an assistant district attorney in Queens.

But in the nearly four years since she was fired from Customs, she has not worked a single day. Every job possibility she has had has blown up, she claims, as soon as U.S. Customs was called for a reference.

Kleiman sees her unemployment as the purgatory of the whistleblower. “I was always taught that if you do the right thing, you’ll be okay,” she says. “Well, not only was I punished for it while I was at Customs, but it followed me after I left. My supervisors promised they would ruin my life, and that’s exactly what they’ve done.”

At first, she was so depressed she had trouble sleeping and would sometimes spend days in her pajamas just lying in bed in her apartment. She filed discrimination charges with the Treasury Department’s equal-employment-opportunity commission, but the investigation dragged on for several years—such cases often do. Her financial problems got worse and worse. And last fall, she finally filed a lawsuit in federal court. Since so much of the case took place behind closed doors and it’s essentially a he-said-she-said kind of dispute, it is her credibility, as much as that of the Customs Service, that is on trial.