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ICE chief of staff on leave on heels of DHS job discrimination lawsuit

By Susan Candiotti. Ross Levitt and Carol Cratty, CNN
updated 5:03 PM EDT, Fri August 17, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A discrimination suit was filed by the man who heads ICE operations in New York
  • James Hayes claims he was passed over for promotions in favor of less-qualified women
  • Hayes cites alleged behavior by Suzanne Barr, chief of staff for the director of ICE
  • ICE says the allegations are under review; Barr has taken paid leave of absence

(CNN) -- Fallout from a job discrimination lawsuit filed by the head of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in New York has led to at least a temporary shakeup at the agency's headquarters in Washington.

Suzanne Barr, chief of staff for ICE Director John Morton, voluntarily stepped down this week and is on paid leave because of allegations made against her as part of an ongoing civil suit filed by New York ICE chief James Hayes.

In the suit, which is leveled at the Department of Homeland Security and DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, Hayes claims he was passed over for promotions in favor of less-qualified women, some of whom used to work for Napolitano when she was governor of Arizona. As part of his lawsuit, Hayes cites behavior by Barr in an attempt to prove an alleged culture of sexual discrimination against men, according to Hayes' lawyer, Morris Fischer of Maryland.

In his lawsuit filed in federal court in Washington last May, Hayes says Barr "created a frat house-type atmosphere that is targeted to humiliate and intimidate male employees."

ICE Public Affairs Director Brian Hale said in a written statement this week that "ICE has referred these allegations to the DHS Office of Inspector General and the ICE Office of Professional Responsibility for review. Ms. Barr has voluntarily placed herself on leave pending the outcome of this review."

On Thursday, DHS filed a motion to dismiss the entire complaint and denied allegations of discrimination and retaliation. Its attorneys also argued "unfounded allegations" made against Barr are "irrelevant" and an "attempt to embarrass or harass senior government officials."

However, a federal official calls the allegations about Barr "serious."

In his lawsuit, Hayes also cites Dora Schriro, who was appointed to serve as special adviser to Napolitano on detention and removal, and immigration and customs enforcement; and as director of the office of detention policy and planning. After about a year, Schriro left DHS in September 2009 after being recruited to run New York City's Department of Corrections.

Hayes claims Schriro was not qualified for her DHS appointment because she lacked experience running a federal law enforcement department. Previously, Schriro served as head of both Missouri's and Arizona's Department of Corrections. In the mid 1980's, she was Assistant Commissioner of Corrections.

In the lawsuit, Hayes blames Barr for "sexually offensive behavior." In one alleged incident, Hayes says Barr called a male employee at a hotel and screamed at him using crude language to say she wanted to have sex with him. Hayes also states Barr moved the office contents of three male employees into a men's bathroom at ICE headquarters in 2009.

After his client's lawsuit was filed, Fischer says he was contacted by other federal employees who heard about Hayes' claim. They provided affidavits to Hayes and his lawyer alleging more sexually charged comments made by Barr, according to Fischer.

"We've been getting calls and e-mails from all over the country from people who want to come forward with information that may be helpful on this case," Fischer told CNN.

In an affidavit provided to CNN, another ICE employee describes a 2009 meeting in the office of ICE Director Morton during which employees were discussing personal plans for Halloween. The male employee says he overheard Barr ask a "senior ICE employee" about the size of his genitals. "You're a sexy mother-(expletive)," she allegedly said.

Over 17 years, Hayes rose through the ranks from Border Patrol agent to a top position at headquarters in charge of Detention and Removal Operations, overseeing a $2.5 billion budget, his lawsuit states. Hayes claims he was removed from that job because of gender discrimination.

Hayes is suing to recover $335,000 in moving costs and lost bonuses he says he incurred when he was transferred to New York in 2009 from Washington

His lawyer says other ICE employees have been reimbursed for similar expenses.

His lawsuit also claims he faced retaliation after threatening to file an Equal Opportunity Claim against DHS and cites six internal investigations which were all unfounded.

However, all but one of those investigations against him involving complaints by fellow employees were initially filed before Napolitano took office in 2008.

In his court documents, Hayes says the complaints were reviewed after he began complaining.

Hayes' lawsuit is filled with "false and unsubstantiated" allegations against Barr and other DHS employees, according to a federal official who defended ICE as an agency of "dedicated law enforcement professionals."

Hayes' allegations "do not align with the fact that Mr. Hayes has routinely held high-ranking assignments, including his current position as head of ICE's second largest field office in New York, the official added.

DHS plans to file a motion to dismiss the lawsuit before the end of next week, the official said.

Barr could not be reached for comment.

Schriro was on vacation Thursday, but a spokeswoman for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's office issued a statement on her behalf and also praised Schriro's work.

"In an arena that has historically been run by men, Commissioner Schriro is proud to have served a combined 14 years as the first woman Director of Correction for the States of Missouri and Arizona. Her selection and service at DHS were based on merit," Samantha Levine, deputy press secretary in Bloomberg's office, said in the statement.

"(Schriro) served with distinction in Washington, D.C., and New York City is fortunate to have her as our Department of Correction Commissioner."

Hayes declined comment on his lawsuit. His lawyer indicated Hayes would like to stay with DHS and issued a statement calling his client a victim of "frat house behavior."

In the same statement, Hayes' lawyer is asking the House subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations, and Management of DHS for a bipartisan investigation.

Mike Rosen, a spokesman for Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the subcommittee, called Hayes' allegations "certainly of interest."

In a statement, committee chairman Rep. Peter King, R-New York, said the committee "has made no decision to initiate an investigation" but will monitor the lawsuit.

The subcommittee has held five previous hearings on DHS management and leadership.

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