The Customs Service is taking steps to fire a veteran inspector who helped bring to light problems with the agency's treatment of airline passengers, especially strip searches of black and Hispanic women.
Customs officials have given Cathy Harris a 30-day notice of plans to fire her because she allowed a television station access to internal records showing black passengers in Atlanta were singled out for searches at a higher rate than whites. Customs regulations ban release of the records, which include personal information about travelers.
Customs officials say they do not use racial profiling. But under pressure from Congress, travelers' lawsuits and news reports, Commissioner Raymond Kelly ordered several changes this year to make searches less traumatic for passengers and guard against racial targeting.
Changes include sensitivity training for inspectors, allowing people detained for more than two hours to call a lawyer, and requiring legal advice from a U.S. attorney if a passenger is detained more than eight hours. In some airports, micro-dose X-ray machines can be used in lieu of pat-downs in some cases.
"What the public scrutiny caused, and what the specter of Senate Finance Committee hearings caused, was a top-to-bottom review of not just racial bias, but what are our policies and procedures and why, and should we change them," Customs spokesman Dennis Murphy said.
Customs, meanwhile, is taking steps to fire another inspector who has publicly criticized the agency: Croley Forester, president of the Treasury employees union local in Miami. Forester, who complained about lax security at Miami International Airport and cronyism within Customs, was accused of falsely saying he had inspected a box that later was found to contain cocaine, officials said.
Murphy said the cases are not retaliation, but instead reflect reforms designed to make the disciplinary process more fair and consistent.
Harris, who can respond to the termination notice before the review board makes a decision, plans to seek government help under the Whistleblower Protection Act, which protects the jobs of federal workers who disclose waste, fraud and abuse.
She admits printing out six months' worth of records of searches at Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport for an attorney representing her in a sexual and racial harassment complaint against Customs. She said her former attorney shared them with WAGA-TV in Atlanta without her knowledge.
But Harris says she has no regrets about the disclosure.
"They wouldn't have gotten the full story without me doing that, and people need to know," she said.
Harris said black travelers were singled out for strip searches routinely while white passengers--even those who aroused the interest of drug dogs--were not stopped.
Harris, a 13-year Customs veteran, is on unpaid leave, which she sought because of stress.