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ATF agents describe fear of retaliation

By Abbie Boudreau and Scott Zamost, CNN Special Investigations Unit
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ATF under fire
  • CNN talked to dozens of ATF supervisors and agents who complain about retaliation
  • Vince Cefalu, a special agent, filed a series of grievances; age discrimination complaint
  • Cefalu said he was put in a job with little or nothing to do because he's the victim of retaliation
  • John Taylor, an ex-ATF special agent based in Las Vegas, said he was the target of retaliation

See ATF agents talk about why they think they are targets of retaliation from their own bosses on "AC360" Tonight, 10 p.m. ET

Dublin, California (CNN) -- It's a Monday morning, and Vince Cefalu just got into work at his more than $150,000-a-year-job as a special agent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

"It's 9:30. This is what I affectionately refer to as the cage," Cefalu, 51, said. "I am sitting here with an empty in box and nothing to do. I'll keep you apprised."

CNN gave Cefalu a video camera to document what he does at work. For five days, he recorded himself inside his own office.

Cefalu said he was put in a job with little or nothing to do because he's the victim of retaliation by ATF managers. After spending much of his nearly 24-year ATF career going undercover with motorcycle gangs and white supremacist groups, he now oversees equipment inventory.

"I spent my whole life standing up to bullies," Cefalu told CNN in an interview to air on AC360 Wednesday night. "The bullies right now are government bureaucrats who are abusing their oath and abusing the expectations of the public. I'm not leaving until this is resolved."

Blog: Bureaucrats and bullies

Records show ATF supervisors claim he's had performance and discipline issues.

CNN has interviewed dozens of ATF supervisors, agents and employees around the country who said they've been demoted or labeled troublemakers just for filing a complaint.

Later on the same Monday in which he brought a video camera to work, Cefalu was still having a slow day.

"I'm going to get something to eat, drag out the day a little bit, get some interaction with somebody ... Here I am, Safeway sandwich, a little news on, catching up on current affairs. I've had a few phone calls, personal phone calls that I've made, waiting for something to do."

At 3 p.m. that day, he records himself, saying "...watching a little news, surfing the net, reading some e-mails, doing whatever, waiting for something to do. It's good money for not a lot of work, I guess. I'm being facetious, obviously."

He said ATF managers turned against him after he reported in 2005 what he said was an illegal wiretap plan in a racketeering case. Records show ATF disputes his claims of the planned illegal wiretap. But he said that started a series of retaliatory measures that ended up in 2007 with him in a desk job. His only negative evaluation, he said, was the year after he criticized the planned wiretap.

Video: ATF agent: I'm paid $150k to do nothing

"Had I not exposed some unethical, potentially criminal clearly outside policy conduct and actions by law enforcement that I was working with, none of this would have happened," Cefalu said. "I would still be working in the field."

"I report to where they tell me to report to, and I sit for eight hours a day, and then I go home," he said. "I do nothing."

Cefalu filed a series of grievances and an age-discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but an administrative judge ruled against him. His attorney is appealing that decision.

And over the past several years, he's also sent letters to members of Congress complaining about alleged fraud and mismanagement at the ATF.

"It's almost like being in an abusive relationship, actually. It's almost like domestic violence, really," said Hiram Andrades, a supervisor in ATF's Washington field office. "It's just you think things are going to improve with each director, you think things will get better and improve, but they don't."

Andrades, who has a pending discrimination complaint, claims he was discriminated against because he can't get promoted.

"I can't get a promotion even if my life depended on it. If my life depended on it, I'd be dead by now, OK?" Andrades told CNN. "This type of retaliation isn't good for the agency, it's distracting and it's not good for the American people. We need to make better use of our tax dollars. We need to use it for the mission versus this kind of stuff. This is very distracting and not good for anybody."

ATF has not had a permanent director since Carl Truscott resigned in 2006. The agency is being run by Kenneth Melson, who has been deputy director since 2009.

In an interview with CNN, Melson said he was not permitted to discuss employee cases. But he insisted that he does not tolerate any type of retaliation.

"When I first came into ATF -- when I went around and talked to people at headquarters and around the country -- my specific and very emphatic message was that everyone was to be treated with respect and dignity and there would not be retaliation," Melson said. "I will not stand for retaliation against people who are abiding by our orders and reporting violations of law or regulations."

"Every allegation of retaliation doesn't mean it's true," Melson said. "Every person you talked to who perceives it's retaliation doesn't mean that it's retaliation, because there's been no adjudication of that. They haven't brought it to anybody to try to resolve it. Be careful when you talk to someone about retaliation, because there are many misconceptions and parameters of retaliation -- some of which are misinformed."

Asked about an employee who does virtually nothing all day, he said: "Well, I will certainly look into it and find out why he is not doing anything all day." He added, "I will make sure that he puts in a full day's work, because everybody is going to put in a full day's work at ATF."

Since fiscal 2005, ATF has paid a total of $1.6 million to settle discrimination claims, according to federal government records. For the same time period, the FBI paid out $1.3 million and the DEA paid $331,755.

In addition, records show, ATF has more discrimination complaints filed per employee than the DEA or the FBI.

But Melson said complaints have gone down 40 percent since last year. And ATF officials added that the U.S. Marshals Service and Bureau of Prisons have more complaints per employee.

John Taylor, a former ATF special agent based in Las Vegas, Nevada, said he was the target of retaliation after he wrote an anonymous letter to the agency's inspector-general. In his 2006 letter, he alleged taxpayer money was being wasted on agents' unnecessary trips to Las Vegas.

Taylor told CNN he was the target of an investigation into who wrote the letter.

"They asked me did I write the letter. My response was, 'I don't have to answer' ... they tried to charge me with lying."

He said he left ATF as soon as he was eligible to retire after 20 years, on December 31, 2009.

"I told my wife, I'm not going to live if I stay here," Taylor told CNN. "I was depressed. It was hell for me."

Another agent in the Las Vegas office, who claims he was suspected of writing the anonymous letter, also alleged he was the target of retaliation by managers, according to records obtained by CNN. That agent was fired for failing to pass a firearms test, but later got his job back.

ATF agents tell CNN that managers are taught how to handle discrimination complaints at supervisor meetings.

CNN obtained a statement from a current ATF supervisor who attended such a meeting in March. During that meeting, ATF associate chief counsel Eleanor Loos gave a presentation to supervisors in the Atlanta field division.

According to the statement, Loos stated that "she considers the EEO process as the employees' 'bitching platform' and "employees use this as a means to complain."

"Loos stated in a bragging manner that the EEO process can be dragged on and can take up to three years," the statement said.

Rafiq Ahmad, the ATF supervisor who wrote the statement, added: "This is not the first time that I have heard Eleanor Loos making similar remarks. She has presented these same remarks in presentations in New Supervisor's training."

Melson told CNN he had not seen the statement. "But what I can tell you is that the direction that I have given people is to make sure that we abide by the rules of the agency, that we abide by the process of the EEO, and the ombudsman. And that's why we have the process in place," Melson said.

In a follow-up interview, Scot Thomasson, chief of ATF public affairs, told CNN that the bureau looked into the statements made by Loos.

"What we found is those statements were being taken out of context," Thomasson said. "In addition, they were being characterized in a slanted matter by the person who wrote it."

CNN's Jacinth Planer and Jessi Joseph contributed to this report.

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