Reporter’s Notebook When the Whistleblower Is a Schmuck

Dallas federal agent Neil Jacobs found the perfect hiding place from charges of discrimination, insubordination, and incompetence-the Whistleblower Act of 1989.

ON THE WALL OF NEIL JACOBS’ SECOND-story office at the Immigration and ’ Naturalization Service hangs a framed poster that bears a quote from Albert Einstein: “Great minds have always encountered opposition from mediocre minds.” Nol an unreasonable pronouncement from a physicist who won the Nobel Prize in 1921 for his general and specific theories of relativity.

Occasionally glancing back to the poster, I listen as Jacobs recounts his version of the three-year war with the INS’s internal auditors, his immediate supervisors, the North Texas Branch of the U.S. Attorney’s Office-even agents within his own INS Investigation division. Slowly, it begins to dawn on me that there should be another poster on Neil Jacobs ’ office wall and it should read. “The Law of Unintended Consequences applies everywhere-even in the federal government.”

Jacobs, a 28-yearveteran of the federal agency. claims thai he was once the target of an INS witch hum, conducted after he publicly criticized a Clinton White House directive. Citizenship USA. which sought to naturalize as many as 1.2 million aliens by October 1 Wo-before the midterm elections. Jacobs’ testimony before a House subcommittee made him a darling of Congressional conservatives who suspected that the Clinton Administration was attempting to pad voter roils with newly naturalized and grateful Democrats. Regardless of his popularity on Capitol Hill, Jacobs was no darling at home.

There is at least one problem with Jacobs” witch hunt theory: Three months before he went to Washington. Jacobs was the subject of an in-house investigation tor a host of complaints ranging from simple incompetence to racial bias-matters unconnected to Jacobs’ criticism of Citizenship USA.

BY TESTIFYING BEFORE A HOUSE OF Representatives subcommittee in September 199ft, Jacobs, the former assistant director of investigations in the Dallas district office of INS, became a federal whistleblower, one of hundreds of civil servants to seek protection since the act was passed in 1989. The Whistleblower Act was originally created by Congress to protect federal employees who expose serious wrongdoing within their agencies. The law prevents supervisors from bring, demoting, or even causing employees discomfort as a result of their disclosures of regulatory lapses or criminal acts. It was never intended to protect employees from the results of their own office behavior.

For the most pan. Jacobs’ Congressional testimony merely echoed that of other INS employees from around the country. He supported claims thai volunteers handled sensitive documents without proper security clearance and that temporary workers were hired without the required background checks, The most serious charge thai Jacobs alleged was that his office of investigations-charged with exploring any possible criminal activity related to the naturalization process-received no referrals for investigations despite the thousands of aliens processed through the Dallas office that summer.

The implication of me combined testimony was clear: Pressured by the White House to naturalize as many new citizens as possible, the INS abandoned its own rules and regula-tions and made il possible for criminals to become American citizens. In reality, however, the breach had little practical impact. When 12,000 individuals were naturalized at Texas Stadium on September 17, 19%, in a mass ceremony, only two were wrongfully naturalized. Hardly a scandal.

Nevertheless, the hearings were a blow-to the INS and the Clinton While House- especially after e-mails and faxes originating from Vice President AI Gore’s office surfaced, suggesting ways to cut regulator)’corners and naturalize as many new citizens as possible before the October deadline. Republicans howled in protest, offering évidence that naturalized Americans vote overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates.

Had the White House prostituted the gift of citizenship in an effort to secure additional votes in the upcoming November election? It certainly seemed so. On the eve of the hearings, the Washington Times accused the INS of acting as a voter mill; the ABC television program 20/20 highlighted mismanagement within the agency related to fraud in testing centers around the country.

Meanwhile, back in Dallas, complaints against Jacobs-which had absolutely nothing to do with his Congressional testimony-were mounting. Things got so bad that the INS assigned an Omaha supervisor, someone with no connection to the Dallas office, to investigate.

OMAHA DEPUTY DISTRICT DIRECTOR Michael Went was sent to Dallas as an outside mediator, to question Jacobs about the complaints against him. In his interview with Jacobs, Went asked about jokes that Jacobs supposedly made to coworkers that his immediate supervisor Arthur Strapp had AIDS (Strapp had cancer). He also questioned Jacobs about charges of racial discrimination, a direct reference to reports that Jacobs had passed over several Hispanic agents who were in line for promotions. Went also wanted to know if Jacobs had referred to Hispanic INS agents as his “little Mexican boys,” as reported, and tolerated his subordinates making similar remarks.

And Went questioned Jacobs about accusations that he was negligent. For example. Jacobs had failed to properly secure a highly sensitive Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint letter. The letter, which was faxed directly to his office, was later found photocopied and posted on walls throughout the district office.

Then Went made a mistake-one of many mistakes INS would make in dealing with Neil Jacobs.

He inquired about a memo Jacobs sent to Congressional staffer Matt Simmons outlining Jacobs’ criticisms of Citizenship USA, which Jacobs earlier and quite correctly chars acterized as the “Jiffy Lube” process. INS officials would rule that Deputy Director Went’s questions pertaining to Jacobs’ First Amendment rights were inappropriate, Consequently, the entire Jacobs investigation was thrown out. INS botched the inquiry.

But there was still the problem of the complaints. Immediately. INS investigators began a new inquiry of Jacobs. By then, however, Jacobs realized that the hounds were after him. “I had managed to gel hundreds of people pissed off at me.” Jacobs explains.

Seeking relief from the second investigation, Jacobs’ critics say that he shrewdly turned his criticism of Citizenship USA into a shield by seeking federal whistleblower status.

WHEN THE RANK-AND-FILE COMplained, Senior Special Agent A.J. Irwin.

says that INS supervisors “told us thai they couldn’t believe thai Neil would do those things.” Irwin is one of the agents Jacobs allegedly referred to as his “little Mexican boys.” He is also one of the agents who filed an EEOC complaint against Jacobs, well before Jacobs obtained whistleblower protection.

“Mistakes were made, and Neil was able to manipulate the mistakes to distract everyone from the real issue.” says Irwin, referring to Jacobs’ history of offensive workplace behavior and the second investigation. The Office of Special Counsel, the federal agency that serves as the guardian angel of all whistle-blowers, ultimately advised the INS against firing Jacobs. They determined thai other INS agents accused of similar behavior were never fired. The agents in question were, however, disciplined. Taking that into account. INS demoted Jacobs a full civil service grade, which he claims cut his salary by $40,000,

But Jacobs refused to accept the findings of the second investigation or the demotion. ’”I never shun away from a fight.” he says. He counter-charged the agency with violating his First Amendment rights in retaliation for his whistleblowing activities related to Citizenship USA and the China Star case, which involved the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Jacobs’ involvement in the China Star case was minimal until he instructed an INS agent to inform the FBI of possible civil lights violations of four Chinese aliens who were languishing in the Tarrant County Jail. The aliens sat there for two months without a hearing. Before discussing it with the agents involved or U.S. Assistant Attorney Matt Yarbrough who was prosecuting the case, Jacobs alerted the FBI. One of the agents he implicated was A.J, Irwin.

“I talked with Neil and told him it was all under control,” says Irwin. “Next thing 1 know, another agent is telling me Neil has accused me of violating the aliens’ civil rights-without even mentioning it to me-which means anything I said could have incriminated me.”

When the case turned out to be nothing more than bureaucratic bungling-an address mix-up-Jacobs reportedly told one agent. “Don’t complain to me; I only raised an allegation. It’s up to someone else to prove.” Yarbrough and his superior U.S. Attorney were so outraged that Jacobs tried to turn a clerical error into an international conspiracy that both wrote letters to his superior requesting that Jacobs no longer deal with their office.

ANYONE WHO KNOWS NEIL IS A FORmer friend of his.” says Matt Yarbrough, almost two years after he last dealt with Jacobs during the China Star incident “All of his victims are quiet. Some agents could tell stories about him that could make you hair stand on end.” Bui because of Jacobs’ whistleblower status, his tendency to involve the media (even going as far to pass oui copies of restricted in-house documents related to his case), and Jacobs’ penchant for revenge. Yarhrough believes, in the end, INS did all it really could.

The agency decided to reach a settlement with Jacobs. It reassigned him to Hawaii in a non-supervisory position, reinstated his back pay, and paid his all legal fees. Perhaps it was really just a mailer of cost analysis. The settlement probably cost the INS less money than it might have owed in damages to the oilier employees disparaged by Jacobs.

But to A.J. Irwin and other INS agents, juslice has not been served. “Neil’s not afraid to do things-to testify before Congress, turn in his own agents, go to the press.” Irwin says. “And if you are his adversary, then you cannot be surprised at the steps he’ll take. There’s nothing they can do to Neil.”

As part of his settlement with the INS and before shipping off to Hawaii, Neil Jacobs will move to the same local INS office where, ironically, Irwin was transferred in February. Jacobs will slay there until his oldest daughter graduates from her Rower Mound high school next year. Then Jacobs will say goodbye to Dallas. “I don’t agree with the sheriff-running-the-outlaw-out-of-town mentality,” says Irwin of his tormentor. “But I’m glad to see him go.”

The lines of hopeful immigrants that wrap around the North Stemmons Expressway building where Jacobs once reigned will continue to do so. and immigration lawyers will still complain that the Dallas office is one of the worst in Texas. “I’m looking forward to doing something productive,” says Jacobs, reminding this reporter that for three years, he has been mostly whistling.


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