- The Washington Times - Friday, April 2, 2004

Leaders of immigrant and labor groups met yesterday to demand an apology from Metro officials, saying they singled out Ethiopian immigrant cashiers at Metro parking lots in an investigation of long-term thefts of up to $1 million a year.

An audit conducted last spring revealed widespread theft of parking fees, but was unable to calculate exactly how much money was missing. Both the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security were brought into the investigation when Metro Transit Police Chief Polly Hanson heard that a number of the cashiers might be illegal immigrants.

Even though none of the employees was found to be an illegal immigrant, some felt that the use of federal agents made cashiers feel intimidated and afraid.

“This has a very chilling and disturbing effect on [the cashiers’] lives. They wonder if they will be getting a knock on their door from Homeland Security,” said Emil Abate, secretary-treasurer for Local 27, Parking and Service Workers Unions.

Metro spokesman Ray Feldmann said the legal status of the workers was never the focus of the investigation and progressed naturally from the information Chief Hanson was gathering.

“I don’t think the act of referring a piece of information to another agency warrants an apology,” Mr. Feldmann said.

Thirty-three cashiers have been fired in relation to the thefts, according to a statement read yesterday by Mr. Abate. He added that 15 of them have challenged their removal and hope to return to their jobs.

Local 27 represents 70 men and women, 99 percent of them immigrants, who work at Metro parking lots through a contract with Maryland-based Penn Parking Inc.

Mr. Abate pointed to a statement attributed to Chief Hanson in a March 12 article in The Washington Post that said, “Some are believed to be in the country illegally and have attracted attention from immigration officials.”

Chief Hanson’s remarks “implied that illegal immigrants and Ethiopians were responsible as [a] group,” Mr. Abate and other community leaders wrote in a letter to Metro General Manager Richard A. White. The leaders held a news conference yesterday in the Josephine Butler Parks Center on 15th Street NW, before mailing the letter.

Chief Hanson denied targeting any cashiers because of ethnicity or making any statements to that effect.

“Any misrepresentations or mischaracterizations of Penn Parking cashiers, while unfortunate and condemnable, are not the result of any public or private statements made by me other Metro Transit Police members, or other Metro officials,” Chief Hanson wrote.

Since news of the thefts broke last month, many of the cashiers have complained about being ridiculed by customers

In response to the suspected theft of parking fees, Metro plans to eliminate cash payments by June when the parking lots will become automated. Customers will have to use SmarTrip cards instead of handing cash to a cashier.

Because a new contract with Metro is necessary for the changes, Local 12 is hoping that its members can continue to work in the new system.

“We ask that you give the first opportunity to fill the new jobs to the current immigrant workers,” reads the letter submitted to Mr. White.

In addition to Local 12, the letter was signed by the African Community Center, the Ethiopian American Constituency Foundation, Plymouth Congregational Church, and several concerned individuals.

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