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Railroaded

A long-time Port Authority employee says the company had no reason to fire him, let alone arrest him

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After more than 23 years working for the Port Authority of Allegheny County, Bernard Jenks could see his reward on the horizon.

 

In two years he'd be 59, deciding whether to keep his job or take the pension he'd been working hard to accrue. He'd earned it in a variety of positions, from driver to his current position as a subway maintenance worker. But that reward may never come because of the bracelets presented to him in June by the Port Authority Police.

 

Bernard Jenks' reward for his years of service was not a pension but a set of handcuffs, 15 hours in the county jail's holding cell, criminal charges and a letter of termination.

 

The reason? Jenks says he was injured on the job, but the Port Authority claimed he wasn't and fired him. The agency also claims he filed a false injury report with Port Authority Police and arrested him for it.

 

On June 13, Jenks and another Port Authority employee were working with a 300-pound floor-scrubber in the Wood Street T station. Jenks then attempted to load it into a subway car to transport it to the Gateway Center station.

 

Jenks was behind the scrubber, pushing it up a board being used as a ramp. According to the police report of the incident, corroborated later by the state Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, the doors of the T car closed and opened on the machine several times while Jenks was trying to load it. Eventually, as Jenks tried again to push the scrubber up the ramp, the doors closed on the end of the ramp and the train left the station before the floor scrubber made it inside the car. The train's motion slammed the board into the end of the platform, sending it airborne, nearly hitting a commuter. It also forced the scrubber back into Jenks' hip.

 

 

A short time later, Jenks was approached by a Port Authority officer. Jenks explained the incident and said his right hip was sore. The officer took down the information and told Jenks' supervisor to take him to an emergency room.

 

Jenks was provided with pain medication and referred to his physician. According to the unemployment-hearing record, Jenks' doctor could not determine whether a new injury had occurred or if the machine had aggravated a pre-existing arthritic condition.

 

"The thing is," says Jenks' attorney J. Kerrington Lewis, "Bernard didn't seek anyone out to make a report, the officer sought him out, made the report and said he should be checked out at the hospital. There was clearly nothing criminal involved here."

 

Port Authority spokesman Bob Grove declined comment on this ongoing case.

 

Jenks was fired, according to hearing documents, after Port Authority officials viewed a security tape of the incident. In the tape, viewed by City Paper, Jenks has the machine resting against his hip as he tries to push it onto the train. The choppy tape is missing several frames, but it clearly shows the machine pointing straight ahead or slightly to the left, with Jenks leaning into it. Shortly thereafter, as the train pulls away, the tape shows the scrubber pointing to the right, the same direction the train was heading, and shows the board lying at the end of the platform.

 

Officials claim the tape shows the machine never hit Jenks, despite its missing frames. Even in the police report, Jenks claims only that the machine "rolled" back into his hip, a claim that is hard to dispute or validate based solely on the tape.

 

In her decision, Unemployment Compensation Board Referee Verna Thomas wrote that testimony from unnamed witnesses showed Jenks had held onto the floor-scrubber the entire time and that the equipment was damaged by the moving train. While she says Jenks may not have been hit by the equipment, there is no question that Jenks could have sustained some type of injury or discomfort.

 

"The referee does not find that the claimant maliciously filed a false incident report because the incident did occur," Thomas wrote.

 

The Port Authority had no more success against Jenks in court after charging Jenks with "false reports."

 

"I find it extremely disturbing [that this case] is in criminal court," said Common Pleas Judge Robert Colville before dismissing the charge. It "doesn't belong here in my mind," he added. "You know you are on the brink of an unfair labor practice," he told the Port Authority. "You are right on the edge of it. As soon as I read [the case], I'm saying to myself, 'This isn't the right place this needs to be worked out.'"

 

"They looked at a security tape that is choppy and missing frames, decided he wasn't hurt, fired him and as a further insult, they arrested him," says Lewis about the Port Authority. "This case is one of the clearest abuses of the criminal process as I have ever seen."

 

"I've never been arrested before in my life," explains Jenks, who can't help but speak in excited tones. "They fired me, claiming I wasn't injured, and on top of that, they decided to arrest me, I think, just to add some extra humiliation. I'm 57 years old. Where am I going to get a job like the one they took from me for absolutely no reason?"

 

Lewis says Jenks is contemplating filing a lawsuit against the Port Authority for allegedly "willfully and maliciously" violating Jenks' civil rights. But right now, Jenks and Lewis are just working toward Jenks' reinstatement.

 

As Jenks' quest to get his job back weaves through official channels, both he and his attorney say the Port Authority continues to intimidate Jenks by threatening to refile the charges.

 

"We were told that at a hearing by the [Port Authority] detective," Lewis says. "I told him that if these charges are refiled then I think Bernard has to file a civil-rights complaint with the U.S. Attorney. What this man has gone through is a travesty."

 

Meanwhile, with a doctor's diagnosis that he received an injury to his elbow and a hip strain, Jenks still sits at home, waiting for an arbitrator's hearing on whether he should be returned to work. He is undergoing a course of physical therapy and walks, at least part of the time, with a cane. Though he's ready and willing to go back to work, Jenks says, a recent Port Authority appeal of Jenks' unemployment benefits indicates the Port Authority is not going to let that happen without a fight.

 

Both Lewis and Jenks question why there was never a proper investigation of what caused the incident to begin with, and why the driver - whose name the Port Authority will not reveal -- has never testified at any of Jenks' hearings.

 

Lewis believes all of the actions against Jenks have deeper motivations. Lewis said Jenks has been injured on the job before and has filed and received workers'-comp benefits previously. He says the criminal charges were retaliatory and merely a vehicle to terminate his employment.

 

Jenks, who is black, believes his race may also be a factor in the case. Fellow subway employee Arnold Staples, a maintenance foreman who is also black, says there is a culture of racism at the Port Authority that involves such things as black employees being passed over for promotions. Another 18-year subway-maintenance employee, Renae Reynolds, who has worked with Jenks for years, says she's been subjected to acts of discrimination. "There are racial problems," she says, "and when you try to defend yourself against these unfair labor practices there is always illegal retaliation."

 

The reasons for Jenks' arrest may never be clear, although depositions during any possible civil lawsuit may end up shedding some light on the case. Ultimately, all Jenks wants is to rectify the situation so he can go back to work. But both Lewis and Jenks realize what a struggle that will be.

 

"I think they've stuck it out so far and done so much wrong to me that they can't turn back now," Jenks says of his former employer. "But it just makes no sense why they did this to me in the first place. They've fired me, called me a liar and locked me up with criminals for 15 hours. It just doesn't make sense."

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