By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
A new scandal was erupting at the MTA, and Inspector General Art Sinai, as he has so many times during his four years watch-dogging the perennially troubled agency, was quick to get out in front of it. "MTA Fires Informer," read the banner across the front page of last Thursday's Daily News. "Agency's top inspector praises woman."
The woman in question was a veteran MTA contract administrator named Amelia Earnest, who was "laid off" under dubious circumstances last November after blowing the whistle on numerous instances of contractor fraud and mismanagement. Sinai was quoted prominently in the article (by Daily News beat writer David Bloom), calling Earnest "an honest person who came to the inspector general's office with some real concerns as to the integrity of the MTA," and announcing an investigation into her dismissal.
Few doubted the righteousness of Earnest's claim. Earnest, as one inspector general's agent described her, was a longtime "friend of the office," who had helped investigators, formally and informally, on cases large and small, and been targeted repeatedly for reprisals by her supervisors for doing so.
By week's end, Sinai's call had been joined by County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, the inspector general's most prominent supporter on the MTA board, who said he would ask the agency's new CEO, Julian Burke, for a full report on Earnest's termination. On Monday, Supervisor Mike Antonovich jumped on Sinai's bandwagon, calling for a grand jury probe into the affair. Sinai, once again, had saved the day.
But inside Sinai's own department, outrage over Earnest's dismissal was directed as much at Sinai himself - and at his top deputy, Lloyd Bruce - as it was at the managers who drummed Earnest out of the agency. And what rankled most was Sinai's claim in the article that he had been unaware of Earnest's firing until last week, when the Daily News called him for comment.
"That's bullshit," said one agent familiar with Earnest's case, who asked not to be identified. "Sinai is lying. We knew this woman was going to be fired and we did nothing to stop it. We hung her out to dry, and the only reason we are on the case now is because the press got hold of it."
Another veteran investigator, who also requested anonymity, concurred, saying that the long and unchecked campaign of harassment against Earnest was "typical, not an aberration," for people who have come forward to the inspector general's office with information. "It's an outrage," the agent said. "We let [her] get fired."
The charges made by these agents and others familiar with Earnest's dealings with the inspector general's office are corroborated by internal MTA records showing that at a critical juncture of Earnest's tenure at the MTA, Sinai and his deputy broke off communication with her, clearing the path for her dismissal.
It's remarkable that Amelia Earnest lasted as long as she did - 11 years - inside the MTA bureaucracy. A witty, profane woman with a sharp Southern twang, Earnest's bottom-line, no-bullshit attitude put her on a collision course with the institutional incompetence and see-no-evil management that passes for standard operating procedure at the half-billion-dollar-a-year agency. She had a college degree in her field of procurement management, while most of her supervisors, as Earnest puts it in her typically colorful manner, "wouldn't know a purchase order if it jumped up and bit them on the ass."
After the Office of the Inspector General was created in 1993, Earnest began coming forward to report the fraud, waste and mismanagement she was witnessing on a routine basis. The cases she brought to the surface ranged from the chilling - in one case, a janitorial contractor campaigned to have Earnest fired after she reported that the train stations under their contract were filthy - to the absurd, such as the case where the MTA purchased five years' worth of a cleaning fluid that had an effective shelf-life of one year.
In gratitude for her efforts, Earnest's supervisors, according to MTA logs, memoranda and Earnest's own personnel file, began a long campaign of harassment and abuse. She was repeatedly transferred against her wishes, and denied promotions and pay raises. At one point, she was assigned to supervise a shift in the warehouse where, Earnest figures, her supervisors thought that as a white woman from the South in an all-male, and predominantly African-American department, she wouldn't last. When Earnest was transferred again a few months later, the men in her charge signed petitions in protest.
In May 1997, Earnest was transferred yet again. This time her password to access the MTA database was revoked, and her access to agency files - including those she needed to perform her job - was restricted. As usual, the new constraints did little to deter Earnest's whistleblowing ways. She was a whiz at coaxing information from the agency's byzantine computer system, and Sinai's office - as well as reporters from the L.A. Times - came to rely on her expertise.
According to her claim against the agency, she readily obliged when inspector general's office investigators called her seeking information on contractors linked to MTA board member and City Councilman Richard Alatorre. Using a friend's password to access the system, for example, she could plug in an address - say, 5400 East Olympic Boulevard, where the event-planning company run by Alatorre's wife was located - and find that Trojan Security, an MTA subcontractor linked to Alatorre, was also doing business at that address.