A Minneapolis FBI agent who accused her colleagues of stealing a Tiffany crystal globe from the ruins of New York's World Trade Center was informed yesterday that her work was not satisfactory, officials said, prompting two U.S. senators to question whether the FBI was retaliating against a whistle-blower.
The agent, Jane Turner, a 24-year FBI veteran, complained in letters to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee last month that she had discovered the slightly damaged paperweight on a secretary's desk in the Minneapolis field office. She wrote that she believed the globe had been taken by an evidence recovery team from the rubble of Ground Zero after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The allegations, along with Turner's decision to enlist the help of Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), were an embarrassment for the FBI and have prompted an investigation by the Justice Department's inspector general's office.
The claims also caused the FBI's Minneapolis office to lose jurisdiction of an unrelated case that was run by Turner, which centered on allegations that a Minnesota company was involved in thefts from World Trade Center rubble on a site in Staten Island, sources said. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is handling that probe to avoid conflict-of-interest concerns.
Yesterday, Turner's supervisor informed her that her job performance "does not meet expectations" on a "critical element," which is the first step toward removal from the FBI, according to Turner's Washington-based attorney and others familiar with the case.
The attorney, Stephen Kohn, said Turner had always received satisfactory reviews from the FBI in the past. She believes that her role in calling attention to the globe theft is the reason for the poor review.
"It is ethically repugnant for them to expect Jane to ignore the theft of the globe while holding civilians under investigation to a different standard," Kohn said. "They cannot and should not blame the whistle-blower."
FBI officials declined to comment on the case in detail, citing personnel issues. But Paul McCabe, an FBI spokesman in Minneapolis, said the retaliation claims were unfounded.
"The FBI does not retaliate against its employees," McCabe said in a statement. "We are referring the allegations of retaliation to the inspector general for investigation."
Turner has told senators that she estimates that the globe, which sells for $115 at Tiffany, is probably worth about $5,000 because of its value as a collectible from the attack rubble.
Turner has had previous run-ins with FBI management. She filed a sex-discrimination lawsuit in August 2001, which is still pending, alleging unfair treatment both in Minneapolis and at a previous posting in Minot, N.D., Kohn said. When Turner was transferred to Minneapolis, she was isolated and other agents were warned to avoid her, sources said.
The Turner dispute is the second high-profile case involving a whistle-blower in Minneapolis since the attacks on New York and Washington. Coleen Rowley, the field office's general counsel, complained in a letter to FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III last May that FBI headquarters officials stymied attempts by agents in Minneapolis before Sept. 11 to secure a warrant for the belongings of Zacarias Moussaoui, who now faces trial as an alleged conspirator in the attacks. Mueller emphasized at the time that there would be no retaliation against Rowley for her complaint.
Grassley, a frequent FBI critic, said Turner's negative job review "looks like retaliation against a whistle-blower who followed her conscience and exposed wrongdoing."
"If there are plans to fire her, the FBI is making a big mistake, and I want the people behind this retaliation held accountable," Grassley said.
Leahy, who has joined Grassley in proposing tougher protections for FBI whistle-blowers, said in a statement that "the timing raises troubling questions."