Activist Says Criticism of Rail Plan Cost His Job

“At a recent state Senate hearing, Perry Crouch wanted some answers to his questions about the $2-billion Alameda Corridor--the proposed rail expressway designed to speed cargo to and from the county’s ports.”

Los Angeles Times
September 28, 2000
Dan Weikel

At a recent state Senate hearing, Perry Crouch wanted some answers to his questions about the $2-billion Alameda Corridor--the proposed rail expressway designed to speed cargo to and from the county’s ports.

Would the project generate enough jobs to help the area’s unemployed, Crouch asked members of the Senate Transportation Committee.

Were there conflicts of interest involving prominent lawyers and companies doing business with the Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority?

It may have been a costly line of questioning for the veteran community activist from Los Angeles, who has been honored by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and the Los Angeles City Council.

Two weeks later, he was suspended from his $42,000-a-year job at Shields for Families, a social service agency where he had worked for six years. Two months later, he was fired.

Crouch, 48, still jobless and with six children to feed, is now suing Shields for Families in Los Angeles Superior Court, alleging wrongful termination and denial of his constitutional right of free speech. He wants reinstatement, back wages and punitive damages.

The lawsuit claims that his former employer was interested in obtaining a lucrative job-training grant from the government agency responsible for building the 20-mile rail link.

To bolster its chances, the nonprofit organization allegedly fired Crouch to placate the corridor’s general manager, Gill V. Hicks, who loudly berated Crouch at the Senate hearing and threatened to sue him for slander.

“Shields for Families wanted to strike a deal with the Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority,” Crouch said. “In order to make it happen, they had to silence me.”

Shields, the winner of a 1995 C. Everett Koop Award for effective community service, denies any wrongdoing. Executive Director Kathryn Icenhower says Crouch was suspended for repeatedly speaking at public gatherings without permission and eventually fired for threatening other members of the staff.

She also says her agency has never received a penny from the corridor authority.

“None of this has anything to do with the Alameda Corridor,” she said. “He is hurting us professionally and personally. There is no reason to damage the community and the 700 families that use our services.”

Hicks declined to comment on the specifics of the lawsuit. “It is unfortunate he lost his job. But apparently he lost it for reasons that do not relate to the corridor project,” Hicks said.

Crouch’s problems began April 16, when he testified for 20 minutes at a Senate hearing held in South Gate City Hall. State Sen. Quentin Kopp (I-San Francisco), the chairman of the Transportation Committee, was gathering information about the Alameda Corridor project.

Crouch, a member of the Alameda Corridor Jobs Coalition, asked about potential conflicts of interest involving Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, a powerful and politically connected law firm based in Los Angeles.

At the time, attorneys in the same Manatt unit were representing the Alameda Corridor authority and Bechtel Infrastructure Corp., which was interested in bidding on the most expensive part of the project. Authority officials, the Manatt firm and Bechtel deny that any conflict existed.

Crouch made a similar query about Daniel, Mann, Johnson and Mendenhall, an engineering firm that serves as project manager. Two of its sister companies have contracts with the corridor authority. The firms also deny any conflict of interest.

Finally, Crouch questioned the corridor agency’s willingness to honor a promise to hire a certain percentage of unemployed people from cities along the project’s route.

Witnesses said that during his talk, Crouch made repeated references to the James gang, an infamous band of 19th century outlaws.

Hicks was not named as a defendant in Crouch’s suit, but the document alleges that the corridor executive stormed out of the hearing room that night and later berated Crouch for almost 10 minutes.

“How dare you say the things you are saying in there! They are all lies!” the lawsuit quotes Hicks as saying. His reaction was so loud, witnesses said, that he drew a crowd.

Although government officials generally cannot sue for statements made at public hearings, Hicks threatened to file a slander case against Crouch.

Days after the hearing, Crouch’s lawsuit alleges, Shields director Icenhower talked to Hicks on the telephone. Crouch says she inquired about a $1-million grant to provide job training for women.

During their conversation, Hicks purportedly complained about Crouch’s testimony, something that Icenhower conveyed to Crouch shortly afterward, the suit says.

“You are in the minor leagues and Gill Hicks is a major league player,” Icenhower is quoted in the suit as saying. “He said that you slandered his agency and he is going to sue our agency and wipe us out. . . . Perry, do you understand that he is going to wipe us out?”

On April 30, Shields suspended Crouch for a week without pay. His notice stated that he had been warned in the past about making public statements without permission. The Senate hearing was one of two instances mentioned.

At the end of June, Shields fired Crouch after 6 1/2 years with the agency, during which he was promoted several times. “Threatening staff” was the only reason cited in the termination notice.

Crouch says his supervisors knew that he regularly spoke at public meetings as part of his job. He denies that he threatened anyone and says the accusation was based on third-hand information that was never confirmed.

“Perry has a book full of awards. He has done great work for Shields. That is why all of this is so surprising,” said David G. Spivak, his attorney.

Even after Shields suspended Crouch, Icenhower praised him in a newspaper article May 19. “He is very energetic and he works hard,” she told the Los Angeles Daily Journal, a publication that covers the legal community.

Now the Shields executive contends that Crouch is a liar: that he requested the telephone call to Hicks, which Crouch denies. Considering his background, Crouch cannot be trusted, Icenhower said.

Crouch admits that he is no angel. He says he is a former gang member and ex-cocaine addict. Before he went to work for Shields, court records show, he was convicted of assault, possession of marijuana for sale, petty theft and domestic violence--all misdemeanors.

“Yes, I have been in trouble,” Crouch said. “But that is why I am able to effectively deal with those who have trials and tribulations. That is why agencies like Shields hire people from the street. Now they are just trying to turn my past against me.”

“Most serious, however, is the belief that (Customs) inspectors who are hired locally, particularly along the Southwest border and assigned to the local ports of entry, could be at greater risk of being compromised by family members and friends who may exploit their relationships to facilitate criminal activities. Although they could not offer any solid evidence, Customs officials express a real apprehension over the possibility that individuals are attempting to infiltrate Customs by seeking jobs as inspectors for the sole purpose of engaging in corrupt and criminal behavior.”

The members of the House Appropriations Committee blasted that passage, stating for the record that “the committee takes strong exception to any implication that individuals of Hispanic background are particularly susceptible to corruption and expects the Customs Service to address unsubstantiated bias by senior Customs officials ....

Customs’ Murphy stresses that the report in question was drafted by Treasury, not Customs. The Customs Service, which is charged with protecting the nation’s border integrity, is an agency under the jurisdictional umbrella of the U.S. Treasury Department.

Although Murphy could not provide any specific details on how Customs has dealt with the request by the Appropriations Committee to “address unsubstantiated bias,” he did say Customs has formed some high-level committees “to address recruitment and retention, particularly of minorities.”

Murphy also added, “I know there were briefings provided for members (of Congress) who were interested in this issue with regard to what the facts are and what we are doing.”

Apparently, though, those briefings failed to satisfy the concerns of all members of the Appropriations Committee. This past summer, the House committee again revisited the issue, expressing continued concern with Customs’ efforts to address the implication that Hispanic Customs employees were somehow more prone to corruption.

In a July 2000 report to the entire House, the Appropriations Committee stated the following:

“Customs offered but failed to provide the committee evidence supporting these views, and statistics provided by Customs did not support the allegation described in the (Treasury) report. In addition, written responses from ATF, DEA, FBI and the Secret Service indicated that these agencies did not agree with the concern that such local hiring (along the Southwest border) posed a greater risk of individuals being compromised.

“Although Treasury and Customs now agree that the passage from the report did not reflect accurately their beliefs or practices, the committee is concerned that Treasury has been slow in taking steps to communicate this to senior managers and others involved with Customs integrity issues. The committee continues to take strong exception to any implication that individuals of Hispanic background are particularly susceptible to corruption and directs Treasury and Customs to contest any such unsubstantiated bias by senior Customs officials....”

Copyright 2000 American City Business Journals Inc..

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