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INS charade angers duped delegation

Some members of Congress still get angry when they recall being duped during a 1995 tour of a detention center for illegal immigrants in Miami. Many detainees were moved out of the office, extra staff was called in on overtime to beef up supervision and guards shed their guns to give the center a relaxed atmosphere.

"It was just a dog-and-pony show," Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Calif., said recently.

What makes Gallegly and others even angrier is knowing that the INS officials responsible for the charade are still employed by the agency, having escaped their recommended discipline.

Too often, government bureaucrats are blamed for problems that are not their fault _ the tremendous expansion of government over the past five decades, the soaring national debt and many conflicting rules and regulations. And frequently, members of Congress who complain about these things are themselves culpable for helping to create the problems.

But in the case of the Miami detention center, members of Congress have a reasonable gripe.

"There is something seriously wrong with a system that protects employees who have committed such grievous acts," Gallegly said.

The story of the detention center charade and the government's efforts to deal with those responsible will go down as classic in the annuals of bureaucratic ineptitude. "Indefensible" is the word Justice Department Inspector General Michael R. Bromwich used.

It started June 10, 1995, when a delegation of seven members of Congress visited the Krome Service Processing Center to determine how well the INS was handling the large number of undocumented foreigners flowing into South Florida.

Only afterward did they learn that 59 detainees _ including nine convicted criminals _ were released to create a false impression that the center was better managed than it was. Thirty-five of them had not been medically cleared for release, meaning they could have been carrying deadly diseases or infections into the community.

"The INS endangered Americans because it released criminals into their neighborhoods and then covered it up," said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, also a member of the delegation.

Following a Justice Department investigation, Bromwich recommended that Valerie Blake, the INS deputy district director in Miami, be dismissed for ordering subordinates to carry out the plan, instructing them to provide false responses to questions posed by the delegation, authoring two false or misleading memos and refusing to cooperate with the investigation.

Constance Weiss, the Krome Camp administrator, and Michael Devine, who worked for Weiss, were recommended to receive minimum suspensions of 30 days and demotions in rank. The Justice Department said Weiss authored an e-mail that acknowledged some detainees had been "stashed out of sight for cosmetic purposes," and Devine was one of the recipients.

Yet while other employees accepted their punishments, Blake, Weiss and Devine appealed to the Merit Systems Protection Board, an independent agency where administrative law judges reversed the Justice Department's recommendations. Instead, Blake was given a 60-day suspension and a demotion and the other two were exempted from discipline.

According to Bromwich, the administrative judges ruled there was no evidence that Blake set out to deceive the delegation. He said her actions were more likely to have been "the result of an overzealous effort to present a sharp-looking heads-up group of employees doing their jobs."

At the same time, the judges ruled Weiss had only been following orders and that Devine had not read the e-mail, even though he forwarded it to a co-worker.

In a letter to Congress, Bromwich said Blake, Weiss and Devine took advantage of a positive Catch-22. He noted that the judges "excused managers because they were merely subordinates who could not be held responsible for following orders while at the same time excusing other managers on the theory that they could not be expected to know what their subordinates are doing."

Blake, Weiss and Devine declined an opportunity to tell their side of this story. At INS, spokeswoman Maria Cardona distanced her agency from the administrative law judges' decisions, noting that INS had nothing to do with the investigation or the reprimands.