Video: Whistle-blowing witch grounded by TSA

Investigative reporter Bill Dedman of msnbc.com
By Bill Dedman Investigative reporter
msnbc.com
updated 3/28/2011 8:42:10 AM ET 2011-03-28T12:42:10

Here's a situation for all you aspiring managers: If you were the boss at a U.S. government agency and one of your employees complained that she was afraid of a co-worker's religious practices, what would you do?

Would it change your decision if the religion were Wicca, and the employee feared her co-worker because she thought she might cast a spell on her?

Here's how the Transportation Security Administration handled it:

It fired the witch.

Each person's story is unique, but what happened to Carole A. Smith gives us a glimpse of the work life of the 400,000-plus Wiccans in the United States. And it sheds light on work life at the TSA, where the 40,000-plus public employees who keep bad people and bad things off of airplanes have started voting this month on whether to join a union.

At New York's Albany International Airport on March 12, 2009, transportation security officer Smith was called into the office of the No. 2 TSA boss there, the assistant federal safety director for law enforcement.

Smith, then 49, was a probationary employee, on the job for just seven months. Records show that she'd had several minor disciplinary actions — she'd forgotten her name tag one time, had been a few minutes late, had stayed too long on break — but the agency classified her performance as “satisfactory.”

She was in the top 10 percent in Albany at catching weapons on the X-ray machine. She passed her skills test on the first try. She caught a woman on her way to Vietnam with $30,000 in cash. And she didn't mind working with the passengers — her training as a massage therapist kept her from being squeamish, as some officers were, about patting down elderly and special-needs passengers.

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The assistant director told her he was investigating a threat of workplace violence. He said that her former mentor in on-the-job training, officer Mary Bagnoli, reported that she was afraid of Smith because she was a witch who practiced witchcraft. She accused Smith of following her on the highway one snowy evening after work and casting a spell on the heater of her car, causing it not to work. Well, actually, Bagnoli said she hadn't seen Smith's car, but she had seen Smith. “I thought to myself,” Smith recalls, “what, did she see me flying on my broom?”

'That's not what Wicca is'
Carole Smith proudly acknowledges being a witch, a practitioner of Wicca, the pagan religion. She does have a broom, too, but just for show. Not all Wiccans use the word witch, but Smith and some others are reclaiming it as a term of respect, sometimes said to mean “wise woman.” She says she had told at least one person at work about her beliefs. But as for hexes, no, Smith said Wiccans don't go in for that sort of foolishness.

Headline
Matthew Rivera  /  msnbc.com
Carole Smith said she's never minded a bit of good-natured ribbing about witches. And two of her three cats are black. But she said the comments from TSA co-workers and supervisors were more akin to  bullying, and made it harder for her to do her job in airport security.

“I was dumbfounded,” Smith said. “I told him, that's not what Wicca is. We don't cast spells. That's not witchcraft. That's black magic or voodoo or something else. To put a spell on a heater of a car, if I had that kind of power, I wouldn't be working for TSA. I would go buy lottery tickets and put a spell on the balls.”

The assistant director, Matthew W. Lloyd, testified later that he realized immediately there was no genuine threat of workplace violence. Smith hadn't followed anyone home — that's the only highway going toward her home from the airport. It was just a personality conflict made worse by fear of an unfamiliar religion.

He had a suggestion for Smith. She should enter into a formal mediation session with Bagnoli, her accuser, through the TSA's Integrated Conflict Management System, or ICMS. The mediation “would be a good venue to dispel any misconceptions” that her co-worker had about her religious beliefs, he told her.

“He wanted me to go to ICMS and sit down with Mary and explain my religion to her,” Smith said. “I'm like, 'No.' I refused to do that. It's not up to me to teach her my religion. I mean, would I have to go down and sit with her if I was Jewish?”

Twice, Smith left Lloyd’s office in tears and had to be coaxed back inside to continue the discussion. The assistant director testified later that he had not found her behavior to be insubordinate. But when Smith received her termination letter, there it was. The fact that she “left room twice and had to be instructed to return” was listed as one of the reasons justifying her firing.

'Where did you park your broom?'
The assistant director had received the allegation a week earlier, on March 4, 2009. He immediately sent a memo, titled “Conflict Mitigation Measure,” to the TSA supervisors at Albany: Keep the two women on separate shifts, and don't let them take breaks at the same time, he wrote, while he investigated the workplace violence complaint.

Smith learned of the memo only when it was also listed on her termination letter. The memo — a step the TSA took because of the co-worker’s religiously grounded complaint that Smith put a hex on her car, a complaint which the agency determined to be unfounded — is listed as another reason justifying her termination.

Image: Security officer pats down passenger at Albany, N.Y.
Matthew Rivera  /  msnbc.com
An unidentified security officer pats down a passenger at the Albany, N.Y., airport. As a massage therapist, Carole Smith said she didn't mind doing the patdowns, which some other workers objected to.

When she learned of the complaint, Smith said, she realized why everything at work had changed that week.

“Where did you park your broom?” she said one co-worker asked her. “Why don't you come to work in your pointy hat?” She said one shift supervisor told another, “She's going to put a hex on me.”

Smith said she's never minded a bit of good-natured ribbing about the popular mythology of witches. Two of her three cats are black. She loved “Wicked” on Broadway. But this was something else, more akin to high school bullying. It made it hard to do her job, too.

“If I called for bag checks on the X-ray, no one would come and do them. I was treated like I was not even there sometimes,” she said. “It was very demeaning. I was constantly walking on eggshells and checking my back.” She said another employee yelled at her in a baggage room, in front of other employees and a supervisor, “Get her the hell out of here! I can't stand to look at her!” A co-worker advised her to transfer to another airport.

'I don't feel safe here'
While still unaware of the complaint about witchcraft, Smith reported the harassment in an e-mail on March 5 to the big boss, the TSA federal security director at Albany, Brian Johansson. She asked for his help, and she told him she had reported the harassment to the ombudsman of the TSA, an informal counselor who is supposed to help employees resolve problems in a safe space outside of the chain of command.

Johansson already knew Smith. She had complained to him previously about being harassed by Bagnoli and her friends.

The two women had a history: Bagnoli had been Smith's first mentor on the job. They didn't get along. Smith said Bagnoli told her repeatedly that she would get fired if she violated any rules. One day, she said, when Smith hadn't followed protocol for checking cameras, Bagnoli and her boyfriend, a supervisor, called her into a small booth, the kind of room where a passenger would be given a private security screening. She was ordered to sit at the table and to read the procedures manual, while the two of them stood behind her. Smith said she found all of this threatening or at least off-putting, so she asked for another mentor, and one was assigned.

After that, Smith said, Bagnoli would verbally harass her. She complained to Johansson several times. For example, she e-mailed him on Dec. 5, 2008: “My days here with Mary have never gotten any better no matter how many times I apologized to her (for what I have no clue).” Johansson replied sympathetically, “I am very sorry to hear about this. Don't give up hope just yet.” In an e-mail to another manager, Johansson described Bagnoli and other employees who criticized Smith at a staff meeting (for her plan to bring in a massage table to offer free massages for employees on her day off) as a “lynch mob.” Smith filed a complaint on March 2, 2009, just days before she was accused of casting spells, saying Bagnoli continued to harass her. “I don't feel safe here,” she wrote.

'She has chosen her path'
But now that she had contacted the ombudsman, Johansson would not help her any more.

“Since she has decided to go to the Ombudsman,” the federal safety director wrote to a deputy on March 6, “I am not going to address her issues ... she has chosen her path.” He didn't say this to Smith. She found the e-mail later, when she received her personnel file through the Freedom of Information Act.

Immediately after the complaint about casting spells, Smith's personnel file started to bulge with disciplinary actions. A training coordinator wrote her up for having a negative attitude. A supervisor warned her for not properly checking a boarding pass. She was eight minutes late to work. She was accused of insubordinate behavior for yelling at supervisors when they told her she'd have to work a 16-hour shift because she was the only woman on duty to pat down female passengers.

On April 2, the personnel specialist at Albany, Robert Farrow, sent Johansson an e-mail about Smith. It read, in full, “Hammer Time.” Johansson replied, “Not yet ... not enough.”

During this time, Smith was making her own complaints about harassing comments from co-workers and supervisors.

And she complained about airport security.

She wrote up a supervisor for repeatedly leaving a gate open next to the metal detector. Smith said her options were to leave the gate open, or to leave her post to close it. She said her complaint only led to more harassing comments.

And she complained that a supervisor was not inspecting a contractor who was bringing in a spare X-ray machine and cardboard boxes on a hand truck. “I wouldn't feel safe flying out of Albany,” she said.

'It made me feel different from everyone else'
The last straw came on May 11, 2009, when she was accused of leaving the baggage room without permission, leaving behind only an employee who was not certified to work alone on a screening machine. Smith said she went to the break room for a bag of chips, as was customary — it was 4:45 p.m., and she hadn't yet been sent for a lunch break.

On that day, her personnel file shows, her shift supervisor, John Engelhardt, started going through her file, cataloguing reasons to fire her.

On June 18, she received her termination letter — signed by an assistant director she had never met. The assistant director, Patricia Sykes, wrote in an e-mail to a colleague that Smith tried to call her after being fired.

“I did not respond,” Sykes wrote, “because she was no longer an employee. It was beyond discussion, as she had already terminated.”

For the last three months of her employment at TSA, Smith and Bagnoli remained under the March 12 order to be kept apart. Though Lloyd had decided there was no workplace violence issue, he never rescinded the order. Smith said Bagnoli, who had accused her of witchcraft, was allowed to take her regular break time, but Smith had to work around Bagnoli's schedule. “If I was sent to lunch or on break, and she was around, I would have to go back to the work area and ask to be rescheduled.” When she went to the restroom, “I'd have to open the door and look to see if anybody's feet were under the stalls.” Supervisors testified that they made sure Bagnoli, but not Smith, was escorted to her car for her safety.

“I had not done anything wrong,” Smith said. “It made me feel different from everyone else. It also made me feel low.”

'You expect me to believe that?'
Smith filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint, claiming discrimination based on religion, reprisal (for contacting the ombudsman) and disability (for an ankle she hurt on the job, and emotional stress caused by harassment).

Image: A TSA officer checks a passenger for explosives in Albany, N.Y.
Matthew Rivera  /  msnbc.com
An unidentified TSA security officer checks a passenger for explosives at the Albany, N.Y., airport. Before she was fired, Carole Smith scored in the top 10 percent at the airport on the X-ray machine tests.

At a hearing on Nov. 30, 2010, she tried to make the case herself without an attorney. She said she broke down in tears several times and became too angry to point out when the testimony of her former supervisors was contradicted by their own e-mails.

The administrative judge ruled against her in December, and she filed an appeal. Next time she hopes to bring a lawyer. She wants her job, assignment to a different airport and back pay, along with the bonuses she earned for being a crackerjack discoverer of weapons.

Though she lost her case, the transcript of the hearing is revealing. The judge who ruled against her kept pointing out that the TSA officials were changing their stories.

“You expect me to believe that?” Judge William Macauley of the EEOC asked one supervisor. “You're hedging,” he told another.

The judge was most withering in dealing with Matthew Lloyd, the assistant director who handled the workplace violence complaint.

Lloyd couldn't explain why he had not noted in his report his conclusion that there was no actual potential for workplace violence.

He couldn't explain why he had told other managers that Smith was uncooperative when she left his meeting in tears, when, as he testified, he had concluded that she was merely emotional.

A good witch? Or the Wicked Witch of the West?
And Lloyd kept changing his story about why he thought mediation “would be a good venue for Ms. Smith to alleviate any misconceptions” about her religion.

Judge Macauley: Why? Why? Why? Why should that be a good venue? It should be an irrelevant venue. If Ms. Bagnoli has a problem with her religion, then she needs to be corrected that it's not relevant on the job and to ignore it. Am I correct?

Lloyd: Yes. You're absolutely correct.

Judge: Let's take the witchcraft out of it. If someone complains to you, he's Jewish, and refers to a stereotype about his Judaism, go to mediation and work it out? Is that management's response to that?

Lloyd: No. That would not be management's response to that.

Judge: OK. But witchcraft takes it into a different thing? I guess. I guess witchcraft and Judaism are different in the sense that — what?

Lloyd: To be perfectly honest, sir, at the time, I wasn't even — I didn't know anything about witchcraft or Wiccanism. ... I wasn't even aware that Wiccanism was a recognized religion at the time. I had to research it afterwards.

Judge: What's your impression of witchcraft?

Lloyd: I don't have an impression of witchcraft.

Judge: You don't have an impression? You expect me to believe that? You have no impression of witchcraft. ... When someone says, “I'm a witch,” you say — you just draw a blank?

Lloyd: Well, it could be claimed they're a good witch, or it could be, you know, the Wicked Witch of the West. I don't know enough about it to make a determination.

When asked why the agency's reaction to the religiously based complaint about hexes was listed on Smith's termination letter, TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis said, “But it also listed a lot of good reasons to fire her.”

Msnbc.com sent detailed follow-up questions, but Davis said the TSA wouldn't discuss its actions because Smith has appealed. TSA employees Bagnoli, Lloyd, Johansson, Farrow, Engelhardt and Sykes did not respond to questions from msnbc.com.

At the hearing on Smith’s complaint, attorney Cheryl Scott-Johnson argued on behalf of the Department of Homeland Security, which includes the TSA: “There was no discrimination here based on Ms. Smith's religion. Ms. Smith was removed during her probationary period because of conduct, behavior and her performance. ... It's like almost every person, almost all the supervisors, had problems with Ms. Smith. ... She just assumes, or concludes, that it all had to do with her religion. In fact, as brought out in the testimony, she started having problems before anybody even knew she was Wicca.”

When Smith complained repeatedly to the director about being harassed by Bagnoli and others, she never mentioned her religion. She said the ombudsman encouraged her to mention it, but “I said I don't want to cause any more issues. I just want the harassment to stop.” Besides, the bosses knew of her religion. They're the ones who came to her with Bagnoli's complaint about being afraid of a Wicccan casting spells.

More hate crimes against Wiccans and other pagans
A prominent Wiccan who runs a national legal clearinghouse and support center said something strange and contradictory is happening: more acceptance, and more discrimination.

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Selena Fox, one of the most prominent priestesses and interfaith educators, helps other Wiccans through her Circle Sanctuary church in Wisconsin and its Lady Liberty League, which works on civil rights and religious freedom issues.

“There's more understanding and acceptance about the Wiccan religion and related forms of nature religion,” Fox said. “That's a positive thing. The U.S. Armed Forces has recognized the pentacle symbol as an approved grave marker. … The state of New Jersey now lists our eight holidays on its education calendar.”

“But there's been a very disturbing trend of hate crimes against Wiccans and other nature religions being on the rise. … People start freaking out when they hear that witch word. It has hundreds of years of bad PR.”

As more pagans are open about their beliefs, Fox said, that intolerance also shows up in the workplace.

“In Carole's case, the bullying, and her attempts to get an intervention, it was escalating to the point where it was interfering with the ability to do her job,” Fox said. “And the system to do an intervention, to stop the bullying, didn't work. Attempts to problem-solve did not work. I really think TSA messed this up. She is not alone in this. Some people are keenly aware about gender issues and sexual harassment in the workplace, but this business about being persecuted because of one's religious orientation, that's less well known, but it's part of the reality of America.”

'You're just speculating'
Wiccans have many forms of religious expression, some thousands of years old and others made up on the spot. Smith, who was raised Roman Catholic, said she is a solitary practitioner, not a member of a group. She celebrates the changing seasons. She goes outside to soak up the energy of a full moon. If it's nice out, she'll have a fire and put in some cedar or sage with rose petals and herbs. She puts a circle of sea salt around the fire to keep out negativity during meditation. She has a small cauldron for burning incense, and a goddess jar for holding wishes.

“You don't try to harm anyone else,” she said. “It's not spell-casting. It's putting something out there in the universe that you desire, and if the time is right, and your heart is pure, and it's right for you, you may get it. Everything happens for a reason.”

The judge said her failure to mention her spiritual beliefs makes it impossible for her to claim that management failed to act on a claim of religious harassment. The judge noted that her termination letter included the TSA's reaction to the religiously based allegation about casting spells, but then he didn't put any weight on that fact in his analysis.

And although the judge said the security manager who recommended her firing, John Engelhardt, “lacked credibility” when he claimed that he had no idea what her religion might be (an earlier e-mail from Smith to him proved otherwise), the judge said that didn't prove that he wanted her fired because of her religion.

Judge: Well, was it because of your religion? Was it?

Smith: I don't know.

Judge: You've alleged that it was and —

Smith: I don't — I don't know why he — all of a sudden, these people started treating me this way. It was my assumption that it was because of my religion.

Judge: And you're just speculating that it ... has anything to do with your Wiccan religion, aren't you?

Smith: That's just when everything seemed to fall apart.

Judge: OK. It's just a coincidence that —

Smith: Now, see, as a Wiccan, I don't believe in coincidences.

© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints

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