News Article - June 21 2006

Grounded for talking?
  SAUL RAVITCH HOLDS a law degree and a master's in journalism and he's paid $50,615 a year as a public-relations specialist at the Philadelphia Airport. But he's been reduced to intern-level work, such as researching "fun facts" about the airport: If all the parking spaces in airport lots and garages were laid end to end, they would stretch to Atlantic City. "I wouldn't say taxpayers are getting their money's worth," Ravitch said. And for a public-information guy, he isn't allowed much information.

   He's forbidden to use e-mail, can't access the Internet, and for months has been cut off from airport computer files, including his own archives. "I've been electronically excommunicated," Ravitch said. "I'd have to say this is professionally pretty unsatisfying." Yesterday, Ravitch began an expensive break from his unsatisfying job: a 20-day suspension without pay.

   What has earned Ravitch this treatment? He speaks his mind, and the people who run the airport don't like what they hear. Ravitch, who's a union steward, has accused airport director Charles Isdell and his team of cronyism and incompetence in op-ed pieces, comments to the Daily News and other media outlets, and most recently, a blistering e-mail. The e-mail suggested a name change to "the Ron White International Airport" after the most notorious figure in the recent municipal-corruption scandal because of White's ability to land contracts at the airport. That e-mail was shared with dozens of airport employees.

   Ravitch is also convinced that his bosses monitored his voice-mail messages and opened union-related e-mail sent to him. Airport spokesman Mark Pesce declined to comment, saying the airport does not discuss personnel matters. It's no doubt particularly vexing to airport managers to be condemned publicly by someone whose job is arguably to make them look better. Pesce said as much to Ravitch in a June 2005 memo.

   "As a public relations specialist, your fundamental job function is to promote and enhance the Airport's image," Pesce wrote. "Your negative actions are in direct violation of your job duties." Ravitch sees his job differently. "I think a lot of public employees forget that they work for the public and not the bureaucracy," Ravitch said. "When I'm on the clock, I'll do and say what they tell me to do and say. But I work for the taxpayers of Philadelphia, and if I think their money is being wasted or their safety is being put at risk, I think I have an obligation to say something." In the corporate world, top management could simply fire a PR guy they didn't like. But Ravitch is a public employee with civil-service and union protection.

   The airport proposed to suspend Ravitch after he was quoted in a Daily News story about a passenger who died of a heart attack after two wall-mounted cardiac defibrillators failed because of dead batteries. Speaking as a union official, Ravitch said he'd previously raised concerns that the defibrillator units weren't being properly maintained. "Unfortunately, I can only bring problems to management's attention. I can't make them give a damn," Ravitch said in the article.

   Three weeks later, managers removed Ravitch's access to the Internet. He was never given an explanation for the move, he said. Airport officials told Ravitch he'd violated its public-information policy and intended to suspend him for three days, but never imposed that suspension. Ravitch's conflicts with airport management escalated sharply in December, when he responded to a statement Isdell wrote defending the airport after a KYW editorial criticized its performance on concessions, baggage handling, and other issues.

   Isdell e-mailed his defense to dozens of airport employees, including Ravitch, who crafted a sharply worded response to Isdell. In the response (also sent to dozens of his colleagues), Ravitch accused Isdell of "surrender[ing] control of the airport's concessions program to a politically connected opportunist, thereby turning PHL into one man's cash cow and an adjunct of the John Street fund-raising organization... We may as well change our name to 'Ron White International Airport.' " The late White, who was indicted on corruption charges, was caught on FBI tapes speaking with Isdell about airport contracts.

   Men associated with two airport contractors pleaded guilty to corruption charges in connection with attempted influence-peddling, but neither Isdell nor any other airport official has been charged with wrongdoing. The city also recently settled a lawsuit filed by Stacey Robinson, a former airport property manager who claimed she had been re-assigned to a lower-paying job after she clashed with an airport vendor connected to White. Robinson alleged that the FBI had surveillance of the vendor talking with White about the conflict and that White said, "Don't worry about it. I'll take care of it." Neither city lawyers nor Robinson's attorney would comment on the settlement.

   Ravitch's e-mail led to his 20-day suspension for "gross insubordination" and violation of the city's Internet/e-mail policy and the airport's media policy. Five days after he wrote his e-mail, Ravitch lost his e-mail privileges and access to airport computer files. This time, he said, he was told it was because of his e-mail to Isdell.

   "This is part of a pervasive culture of intimidation," Ravitch said, adding that he thinks airport management has been eavesdropping on his and others' communications. In January 2003, Ravitch tried to check his voicemail messages and discovered someone else had accessed his voicemail. He showed the Daily News a memo from an airport communications person suggesting he change his password, because it appeared someone had checked his messages. More recently, after he lost e-mail access, he showed the Daily News computer printouts suggesting e-mails from employees sent to Ravitch about union matters had been opened by someone else at the airport.

   In response to inquiries from Ravitch's union, AFSCME Local 2187, airport officials wrote last month that they had "reviewed Mr. Ravitch's e-mail to provide material necessary for a separate legal matter." Asked to comment specifically on Ravitch's allegations of voicemail or e-mail monitoring, Pesce said, "We do not discuss internal personnel issues." After the Daily News contacted the airport about Ravitch's case, he regained access to some computer files, but not the Internet or e-mail. So he communicates with other airport employees by phone and fax, his in-box filling up with faxed copies of e-mails that others get electronically.

   When he wants to submit an electronic draft of something he's working on, he transfers it to a diskette, which is sent via interoffice mail. To do Internet research, he has to go to the airport's human-services department in a different airport terminal, then come through a security check to get back to his office. Ravitch acknowledged his working conditions are demoralizing. "But two principles are at stake in this fight," Ravitch said, "free speech and government accountability. By attacking the first, the airport hopes to avoid the second."

Source - Daily News