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Truth Has Consequences at the MTA

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.

After the Los Angeles Times published an expose detailing payments from MTA contractors to the event-planning company, Earnest's excursions into the agency's database came under intense scrutiny by higher-ups at the agency, who, Earnest believes, suspected her as a leak. Earnest's unit supervisor, Anthony Chavira, ordered her to cease her forays into the computer system, and initiated an administrative investigation against her. Says Earnest's attorney, former federal prosecutor Marvin Rudnick, "They were looking to cover up the investigation, plain and simple." Chavira did not return calls for comment.

In the face of the sanctions against Earnest, investigators at the inspector general's office took steps to protect their source. According to the claim Earnest filed against the MTA, investigator Daniel Carvin called Chavira on July 29 and informed him that Earnest was assisting an ongoing investigation, and told him he was drafting a memo to that effect. Nevertheless, two days later Earnest was suspended for a month and marched out of the MTA headquarters by security.

The sell-out of Amelia Earnest began several days later, when the acting deputy inspector, General Lloyd Bruce, told department investigators to sever any contacts with Earnest and refer all calls to him. "We were told to drop her - 'Don't ever talk to her again, take all her documents back to her supervisors,'" says one agent. "Lloyd Bruce said it was too much of a risk. He said we didn't want our heads to be out there."

The investigators were dismayed. "When it came time for us to say, 'Hey, this is wrong' and send a message that this kind of retaliation is not going to be tolerated, we should have done something," the source continues. "But our office is as politicized as any office in the MTA, and we let her twist in the wind."

Earnest was not aware that she had been deemed, in effect, persona non grata by the inspector general's office. At the time she was focused on getting the office to intervene with her supervisors, who had changed the password on her voice mail and were intercepting potentially sensitive messages - including messages from the reporters who occasionally badgered Earnest for information. She became suspicious when investigators who normally took her calls referred her to Lloyd Bruce, the number-two man in the office, and more so when Bruce finally called her back to deny her request. "He told me something to the effect of 'We are not going to get involved in a rift between you and your supervisors,'" Earnest says. "I was, like, wait a minute, what he's saying is 'You're on your own now.'"

Earnest didn't know the half of it. According to MTA records, while she was still on suspension, Earnest's top supervisor, the executive officer of the procurement department, Art Kimball, contacted Sinai directly in connection with Chavira's administrative investigation into her alleged leaks. There could have been no mistaking the intent of Kimball's inquiries: Earnest's supervisors were building a case against her, and they wanted to know whether the inspector general would protect her.

The upshot of Kimball's communication with Sinai became clear when Earnest returned from suspension a month later and was presented with a "Performance Improvement Plan." The document, which Earnest reluctantly signed, stated that her supervisors, Anthony Chavira and Art Kimball, had been "in contact with the inspector general's office" and that the "current understanding . . . is that you have not been asked to perform tasks in support of any I.G. investigation." Moreover, the plan, in apparent violation of MTA policy, ordered Earnest to seek prior approval from her supervisors before making any further contact with the inspector general's office.

In other words, the woman whom Sinai now hails a "whistleblower" had been cut off from any protection she might be afforded by such status. Sinai had given her supervisors a clear, if tacit, signal that she was fair game for whatever moves they might make against her.

Thus exposed to retaliation, Amelia Earnest's 11-year career at the MTA came to a swift and altogether predictable end. Upon her return from suspension, Earnest's position was transferred to a new "cost center" on the MTA's books, an entity consisting solely of Earnest's job. When the financially troubled agency initiated a round of layoffs a few weeks later, the new cost center was slated for elimination. Earnest was laid off on November 5, 1997. "Her position was no longer required by the department," says MTA attorney Cassandra Langdon. Despite her college degree and seniority, Earnest was one of only two employees laid off in the 257-person Procurement Department.

Art Sinai discussed the Earnest case over the course of two interviews, but in the end declined to comment on the details of her dismissal, other than to commend her work for the MTA. Sinai also refused to make his deputy, Lloyd Bruce, available for comment, or to permit interviews with any of his staff.

It seems unlikely that Sinai's investigation will expose his own department's culpability in the dismissal of Amelia Earnest. According to sources inside the inspector general's office, Sinai has ordered a very narrow probe, focusing on whether there was a legitimate basis for transferring Earnest's job to the new cost center, and whether her supervisors followed MTA policy in targeting her position for elimination.No matter. The probe should still make for some great press.