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When I met Barry Mallek last week, he was already a couple of hours into a day of defending America from terrorist threat. Still, he seemed to be bored. When he saw me approach, he unfolded his body from a chair and smiled.
"This is the only place they have an empty chair," he explained, motioning to a desk on the first floor of the Federal Building. "If I didn't sit there, I'd be standing around all day."
Mallek has spent the past two weeks showing up for work as a Federal Protective Service officer in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, doing nothing for eight hours, returning to his room at the Nob Hill Hotel, and then coming back the next day and sitting around some more. "I just kind of walk around, mingle a bit; I ask people, 'How's it going?' and, 'Remember when?'" Mallek explained as we took the escalator to the cafeteria for a two-hour coffee break. Mallek said he'll likely continue his current routine for several more months. "It's kind of funny; I'm making over $60,000 a year for doing this," he said.
Funny? It's a regular laugh riot, especially when you consider that Mallek is currently performing the same task for which the federal government owes him 11 years of back pay: He's doing nothing. After all this time, he's still hanging around waiting for someone to correct a supposed bureaucratic snafu.
In 1989, Mallek was hired as an officer in San Francisco with the FPS, an obscure agency created in the 1970s to police government property. Along with a couple dozen other such orphan bureaucracies, the FPS recently became part of the Department of Homeland Security.
But someone in the bureaucratic ether delayed Mallek's expected 1993 start date. They said his paperwork had been lost; for reasons unexplained, his background investigation dragged on for years. He hired a lawyer and obtained a judgment, confirmed on appeal, that the government owed him a job, because it had vindictively postponed his employment in San Francisco after he'd complained of racism in the service's Atlanta bureau during the early 1990s.
Two weeks ago, Mallek was finally allowed to show up for work here in S.F. A lifelong police officer, he's had thousands of hours of training in just about every kind of police work. But he's been given no assignment, nor will he for several months, he says. Technically, he's considered a trainee, and, as such, he's awaiting a decision on whether he'll be required to attend police academy -- for the third time in his career.
In the meantime, he walks the halls, reads, and watches other staffers come and go.
"This is so far beyond anything I've experienced. And I was the chief judge for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Baltimore," says Gary Gilbert, Mallek's Washington, D.C., attorney. "It's hard to tell whether it's bad faith or incompetence. But the fact is, it doesn't matter."
In Vaclav Havel's hilarious 1965 play The Memorandum, a cruel supervisor in a government office creates an artificial language called Ptydepe putatively meant to make interoffice memos more specific. All memo-writing is overseen for approval by departmental Ptydepists, who, because Ptydepe is impossible to learn, approve nothing.
This halts all communication, and the supervisor thus vanquishes all bureaucratic rivals and guarantees his own sinecure.
How could Havel possibly have known about Barry Mallek's world?
The strange sojourn that has left Mallek protecting our homeland security by doing nothing began, in Mallek's own, perhaps biased, account, when he retired after 20 years as a police officer in San Bernardino. His is the tale of a simple California cop who dreamt of a middle age spent in a federal government sinecure, followed by a retirement of double-dipping ease. Instead, he embarked upon a pair of fantastic and simultaneous journeys, one through the bureaucracy of what is now the Department of Homeland Security, the other through the corrupt, redneck world of small-town law enforcement in the South.
When he was first hired with the San Francisco FPS office, Mallek was only 40. He already had a pension from the San Bernardino Police Department. He'd established his own chain of traffic schools on the side. He'd bought a house in the tony hills above San Mateo. He was living a government employee's dream.
After serving in San Francisco a couple of years, in 1992 Mallek imagined he could do even better for himself. He applied for a transfer to Atlanta. "I figured I'd improve their [crime] statistics just as I had here, and maybe get a promotion," Mallek recalls.
The transfer, by Mallek's account, proved to be horrible miscalculation. In the Atlanta FPS Bureau, employees posted a photocopied order from a sadistic, racist, Old West judge boasting of how vultures would pick flesh from the bones of a "chili-eating, copper-colored" Mexican convict after he was hung. Mallek, whose wife is Mexican-American, made a copy of the flier and filed it away. Fellow employees, who learned that Mallek was Jewish, began making comments such as "Who's his rabbi?" One of Mallek's co-workers, who was Hispanic, reported to an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigator that co-workers would greet him with the salutation, "How are you today, Guacamole?"
"It was like a KKK party," recalls Mallek. "I found that these people weren't playing around, unfortunately. I guess I'm a single-family cross-burning waiting to happen. I'm white, but I'm Jewish, and my wife is Mexican. ... My son, who I love very much, would fall under that copper-colored category. He's very dark."
Mallek arranged for a new job as police chief in San Benito, Texas, and quit the Atlanta FPS post. He subsequently filed a discrimination complaint against the federal agency with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claiming the FPS had fostered a hostile, racist working environment in its Atlanta office.
Mallek then began an unexpected trip through a realm as brutal, in its own way, as the federal bureaucracy: small-town law enforcement in the Deep South.
Soon after starting work in San Benito, Mallek launched a police crackdown on some allegedly drug-dealing, whoremongering bars that happened to be owned by some local officials, he says. His city employment contract was nullified after 13 days of this work. Mallek then applied for various federal jobs and was tentatively accepted for an FPS job, back in San Francisco, pending a routine background check. But there were some paperwork delays, officials told him.
So Mallek took a job as police chief in Duncan, S.C., to bide his time.
"Those small Southern places can be tough," Mallek notes. But in Duncan, "after I flushed out the initial moonshine mentality, I had a successful career there for about seven years." He fired one of his officers for taking bribes, and the Town Council backed him. Toward the end of his tenure, though, Mallek says, he discovered associates of a newly elected mayor may have been engaging in illegal activity.
"A short time after that, I came up for my contract to be renewed," Mallek says.
Next, he got a job as a police captain in Winder, Ga.
One day, Mallek recalls, one of his co-workers commented within earshot to a fellow employee, "How do you think that shirt would look on a Jew?"
"I said, 'What did you say?' He said, 'You heard me: How do you think a Jew would look in that shirt?' I said, 'What do you mean by that?' He said, 'You're Jewish, aren't you?'"
Mallek complained to his superior and was later dismissed, he says. He then became a sheriff's deputy in Oconee County, Ga., a job that proved satisfying. Newspaper accounts from 2001 describe Mallek pursuing a gang of bank robbers as they fired on him with two assault rifles. Mallek used his vehicle to ram the side of the robbers' car, flipping them into some chicken coops.
"I almost killed some bank robbers, once," is Mallek's way of recalling the incident. "But I prayed they were OK."
I only have one, obviously biased side of the full story as to why Mallek spent 12 years going from job to job in the American Southeast. All the same, I can attest from a stint as a cops and courts reporter in rural Virginia that it's not unusual for law enforcement officers in such places to openly display frightening strains of racial prejudice, incompetence, and/or corruption.
Fortunately, redneck Southern cops don't form the first line of law enforcement protection against terrorist attack.
Unfortunately, the vast quarry of bureaucratic hellholes that now makes up the Department of Homeland Security does.
While Mallek migrated across the Southeast, his federal job papers languished inexplicably.
Every few months during his Southern sojourn, Mallek would check in with the FPS personnel office to ask when he should report for duty in San Francisco. In 1995, the agency said his application was pending "in the central office." In 1996, paperwork for his required background check was lost, the agency said. After Mallek filed a complaint, the EEOC ruled that the agency had delayed his application in retaliation for his hostile work environment complaint at the Atlanta FPS office in 1992. The commission ordered that Mallek be hired immediately and given back pay. FPS officials ignored the order; and in 1998, the agency said it had "reconsidered" its decision to hire him.
But last spring, the EEOC declared that the FPS had no excuse not to have hired Mallek in 1993 and ordered the agency to take him on immediately and make Mallek financially whole for what should have been more than 11 years of FPS employment -- and all within 60 days.
Fifteen months later, the agency allowed Mallek to show up for work at the Federal Building here. It still hasn't given him back pay.
A Homeland Security flack hadn't found someone who would comment on the matter by press time.
If you want to get a good estimate on how safe Americans should feel during the age of terror, forget everything you've read about the U.S. military stirring up a new terrorist breeding ground in Iraq; al Qaeda's on-the-lam leadership and its continued recruiting binge; anti-terrorism funding that goes mostly to states that don't need it; or airports, seaports, chemical plants, energy facilities, and other lethal targets that remain unprotected.
No, if you want to get a feel for the keenness of America's anti-terrorist bulwark during the lead-up to the third anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, head down to 450 Golden Gate Ave. and spend a few hours lounging around with Barry Mallek. He won't mind; he has all the time in the world.
Then take a look at the rest of the bloated and incompetent assemblage of bureaucratic fiefdoms that were lumped together two years ago and given the portentous name Department of Homeland Security.
This is the entity that the New Republic earlier this year called a "bureaucratic Frankenstein, with clumsily stitched together limbs and an inadequate, misfiring brain."
It's the agency that Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) told the New Republichas left America "arguably in worse shape than we were before."
It used to be that, if the feds screwed something up, you could blame individual, incompetent agencies like the INS or the Federal Protective Service. Now, though, they're part of an enormous, amorphous, untouchable bureaucracy. If you're Barry Mallek, it's an absurdist, boring bureaucracy, too.
In his borrowed, glassed-in cubicle at the Federal Building, Mallek has Scotch-taped a half-dozen training certificates on the wall, to show anyone who's interested that he shouldn't be characterized as an "officer trainee," as his new plastic badge says. In what appears to be an intended insult that may as well have been written in Ptydepe, the agency has told Mallek that he must retake his federal police training, though he's as experienced and trained as any of his peers.
"If I were made to go to the basic police academy again, like I did in 1970, that would be a waste of money," he says. "I've got 2,500 hours of formal training at the basic police academy, the federal law enforcement academy, special agent training. I've been certified for the laws of South Carolina, and the same thing in Georgia."
So he's applied for a waiver; he doesn't expect an answer on that score for a few months, though. Meanwhile, he tries to keep busy.
"Yesterday I must say I conditioned myself; I walked around quite a bit. Right now I've been sitting here reading. I'll go up to the law library. I kind of pride myself on my knowledge of the law. That's only professional, you know," he explains. "Also, I kind of hang around, you know, hang out. A lot of the time I just watch."
Do you hear that, Mr. Terrorist Bent on Attacking U.S. Government Facilities? The Department of Homeland Security is on the lookout for you.