- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 11, 2001

A Florida lawyer charged yesterday that Mario Cavallo, an official at the Miami office of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, gave a verbal order to destroy "any documents" in the Elian Gonzalez case that might embarrass the Clinton administration.

Lawyer Donald Appignani, who represents INS employees in a potential "whistleblower" action, named Mr. Cavallo yesterday in a telephone interview from his home in Coral Gables, Fla.

The addition of Mr. Cavallo's name marks the latest twist in a series of lawsuits and complaints triggered by the saga of Elian Gonzalez the Cuban shipwreck survivor whose return to Cuba in June ended a seven-month custody battle that fired passions on both sides of the Florida Strait.

In sworn testimony in December, Mr. Appignani charged that senior INS officials had ordered documents destroyed following the April 1999 raid in which federal agents seized Elian, then 6 years old, at gunpoint and whisked him away from his great uncle's home in Miami.

In discussing his testimony yesterday, Mr. Appignani said his clients did not personally destroy evidence that could be used against the government and that his clients have no firsthand knowledge that documents were destroyed elsewhere.

At the urging of his clients, Mr. Appignani contacted Ronald Guralnick, who is representing the Gonzalez family in a lawsuit against Attorney General Janet Reno, INS Commissioner Doris Meissner, the Justice Department and agents involved in the raid.

The Gonzalez family accuses the federal government of violating its federal and constitutional rights in the raid.

"I do not know if obstruction of justice a crime was committed or not, but the allegations are serious enough that there should be a serious investigation," Mr. Appignani said yesterday.

He said the Justice Department could not conduct a credible investigation of itself, or its employees in the INS.

The INS offices in Washington and Miami referred all questions regarding the charges to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

"We look forward to a full airing of the allegations," said Rosa Rodriguez, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami.

Mr. Appignani said the order to destroy the documents came from Mr. Cavallo, a section chief in the office of investigations in the Miami INS office.

The INS in Miami said Mr. Cavallo would not be available for comment because of the pending lawsuit.

"My clients are alleging that there was an order to destroy documents," Mr. Appignani said yesterday. "My clients heard the order."

Mr. Appignani also charged that there was hostility against Cuban-Americans in the Miami INS office following the April 22 raid that removed Elian Gonzalez from his great-uncle's care.

As evidence, Mr. Appignani said that someone in the INS Miami office had coffee mugs made with the slogan "Operation Reunion" written across the top.

On one side of the mug is a stopwatch showing 154 seconds, the amount of time it took the agents to seize the child.

The other side of the mug displayed a picture of the Cuban flag, which is widely displayed on Cuban-American homes in Miami, with a circle and slash through it.

"That may not be illegal, but it is certainly unethical," said Mr. Appignani, who has seen one of the mugs.

Mr. Appignani said he would not divulge the identities of his clients or say how many he represents.

He described them as "low-level" INS employees who feared for their jobs, despite "whistleblower" protection laws.

In addition, Mr. Appignani said that one of his clients heard Miami's INS chief, Robert Wallis, call the moment when the INS agent pointed his gun at Elian huddled in the closet with a family friend an image captured in a now-famous photo "one of the happiest moments of my life."

Mr. Wallis is responsible for INS operations in South Florida. His division has 1,454 employees.

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