Sunday, December 10, 2006

yay for whistleblowers

Maimi Herald
Jury ruling favors ex-DEA agent in bias suit

A former high-ranking federal drug agent in Miami said a ''great feeling'' swelled up inside him on Friday when he won a 4-year-old discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. government.

A federal jury in Miami found the Drug Enforcement Administration discriminated against Sandalio Gonzalez, the former second-in-command of the DEA's South Florida field office, by retaliating against him with a transfer to another management job in Texas in 2001.

The racially mixed, nine-person jury awarded $85,000 in damages to Gonzalez, 55, of Doral, who had been the DEA's top-ranking Cuban-American administrator. The victory under U.S. law allows his attorneys to obtain legal fees, which could total hundreds of thousands of dollars.

For Gonzalez -- who stirred controversy in 2000 when he blew the whistle on a Miami drug bust in which 10 kilos of cocaine went missing -- the court triumph was sweet vindication. He had stood up for not only himself, but also other Hispanic and black DEA agents in the Miami field office over issues of discrimination, his lawyers said.

''I don't think it's sunk in yet,'' said the 27-year DEA veteran, now retired. ``It's just a great feeling to see the system work.''

The Department of Justice, named as a defendant in the suit, could appeal the verdict. The Drug Enforcement Administration, which is part of the Justice Department, declined to comment Friday.

Gonzalez was among 16 top-level agency executives sent transfer orders on Jan. 18, 2001 -- just before a four-month freeze on such moves was instituted by President George W. Bush's incoming administration. Gonzalez, who supervised about 300 agents in Miami, was ordered to move to El Paso, Texas, where he was the top DEA administrator in charge of 150 agents. Gonzalez, who made $142,000 annually, retired last year and returned to Miami.

Top DEA officials, who testified at the week-long trial before U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno, described the transfer as a ``promotion.''

But Gonzalez and several others on the transfer list had complained that DEA Administrator Donnie R. Marshall's actions were meant to punish perceived troublemakers and reward his friends before his successor was appointed by the Bush administration.

''Believe me, this was the last thing I wanted to do,'' Gonzalez told The Miami Herald after filing a complaint to stop the transfer in March 2001. ``Of course I'm sad about it, but they have left me no choice.''

Gonzalez accused Miami DEA agents, supervisors and high-level federal prosecutors of covering up the disappearance of 10 kilos of cocaine from a 1998 search of a drug suspect's stash house in Miami. Internal investigators found no wrongdoing.

Gonzalez alleged unfair treatment of Hispanic agents in the DEA's Miami field office -- a claim central to his discrimination suit.

His attorneys, Richard Diaz and Donald Appignani, rejoiced over the victory, saying their client showed courage in standing up to the government on such an important principle.

''While the amount of money awarded to Sandy does not match the harm the government did to him,'' Diaz said, ``what is more important is he has been vindicated after four years in the court system.''

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