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50,000 Federal Employees Questioned on 'Roundup'

By Stephen Barr and Serge F. Kovaleski
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

At least 50,000 government workers are being individually questioned as officials try to determine who attended the controversial "Good Ol' Boys Roundup," an annual gathering of law enforcement officials that purportedly included racist activity, administration officials said Tuesday.

The federal employees work in law enforcement agencies at the Treasury and Justice departments, and the most recent round of questioning, now underway, has prompted protests from some workers at the U.S. Customs Service. The workers contend the questions violate their constitutional rights to privacy and freedom of association.

A 90-second videotape and other descriptions of the roundups held in the mountain town of Ocoee, Tenn., created a national furor earlier this summer, with high-ranking federal officials vowing to identify what they initially described as a small number of federal law enforcement officers who attended the gatherings.

As depicted on the videotape, the events included vendors selling T-shirts depicting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in gun-sight cross hairs and a banner with the words "Nigger check point."

Tuesday,. a video producer who saw the original tape said it was possible that the footage had been doctored, adding to the confusion about what happened at the gathering. Federal law prohibits employees from engaging in discriminatory conduct.

Since Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin last month announced an investigation of law enforcement participation in the "roundups," the Justice Department has identified 33 employees who have attended the outing over a five-year period. The Treasury Department is still conducting its investigation.

Officials said the Customs Service plans to interview as many of its 19,000 employees as possible by Thursday. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has interviewed most of its 4,000 employees, a spokesman said. The Secret Service, which has about 4,500 employees, declined to comment.

At the Justice Department, officials also have surveyed employees, a spokesman said. FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, for example, has asked his field offices to question each of the agency's nearly 23,000 employees. The U.S. attorneys in 94 offices across the nation have asked their employees about the event. Employees at the Drug Enforcement Administration, Immigration and Naturalization Service and Bureau of Prisons also have been questioned.

In a memo this month, Treasury Department Inspector General Valerie Lau requested that "all enforcement bureau employees" respond to three questions that seek to establish whether they were invited to or attended the events. Lau said the Treasury inquiry was designed "to find out what happened" at the roundups. Employees are being asked whether they were ever invited, "orally or in writing," to attend a roundup, whether they attended and, if so, in what years, according to her memo.

Lists of employees who answered affirmatively and of employees who could not be contacted or refused to answer the questions will be compiled and provided to Lau, a memo prepared by the Customs Service said. Officials said the interviews take only a few minutes and are conducted behind closed doors. Employees covered by union contracts may ask for a union official to monitor the interview.

"This query is one technique that we are using to find out who attended. There is no intent to prejudge any response to the three questions," Lau said in an interview.

"There have been a number of very serious allegations made. The only way to deal with them is to find out the truth, to find out from people who attended what actually happened. I have made every attempt in taking this course to ensure that employee rights have been considered and are complied with. My intention is to find out firsthand from people who attended what actually happened," Lau added.

But employee rights specialists said Tuesday that the Treasury Department had reached too far in its attempt to sort out the roundup controversy.

"This is the kind of stuff that went on in the '50s during the time of political witch hunts, and even though the beliefs reportedly expressed at this event were reprehensible to most of us, this does not excuse this kind of official inquiry into associations," said Ira Glasser, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.