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Federal agent accuses DHS of failing to protect her from sexual misconduct

NEWARK - Emiljana Kodra felt thrilled to land a job as a U.S. immigration agent after serving as a police officer in Baltimore, until one of her new supervisors started texting her.

He asked what kind of underwear she wore. He wondered about the warmth of her body.

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At the office, he allegedly grabbed her, according to a federal lawsuit she filed against the Department of Homeland Security. After she resisted him, Kodra said, she was transferred to one of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s least desirable assignments, inside a dingy New Jersey detention center.

“I would go home and tell my mom and cry,” Kodra, 43, said during a recent interview at a Newark coffee shop. “I felt scared. I felt disgusted.”

DHS and ICE officials declined to comment on Kodra’s allegations because the lawsuit is pending. ICE said the agency takes misconduct seriously and refers allegations of improper behavior for possible internal investigations.

Kodra filed the federal lawsuit after DHS rejected her allegations about harassment by her supervisor and other DHS employees, after she filed a formal complaint with the agency. The department said in a written decision last year that the text messages appeared mutual and that managers transferred Kodra after a female employee accused her of unprofessional conduct, which Kodra denied in interviews and court records.

Labor lawyers say cases such as Kodra’s illustrate how difficult it can be for workers to pursue, let alone win, a harassment complaint in the federal government. Employees must show they were targeted because of their sex and that the treatment they experienced created a hostile work environment. Even then, there is no guarantee that a harasser will be disciplined.

Researchers say sexual harassment is especially pervasive in law enforcement, where women make up just 12 percent of sworn officers. The Department of Homeland Security has the largest law enforcement population in the U.S. government, and the lowest share of female officers at 9.8 percent.

DHS has faced recent scrutiny over its response to harassment cases, with reports that the Coast Guard and the Border Patrol - agencies that, like ICE, are housed within DHS - have covered up misconduct or allowed employees to retire without investigating allegations against them.

DHS spokesman Luis Miranda said Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has strengthened discipline procedures in response to public concerns about harassment and made clear that misconduct of any kind will not be tolerated.

“There’s no question there are pockets of severe problems inside of DHS,” said Nick Schwellenbach, a senior investigator at the Project on Government Oversight, the nonprofit that in 2022 disclosed that the agency’s inspector general had failed to publish a major internal survey on sexual harassment. “Some of those pockets include agencies that are heavily male-dominated like ICE and CBP, especially out in the field.”

The nonprofit found that in many cases, DHS failed to properly investigate complaints or discipline offenders, even when the complaints led to settlements totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In 2022, Mayorkas ordered officials to centralize the discipline process at each of the department’s 20-plus agencies, ensuring that immediate supervisors would not handle allegations of serious misconduct against their employees. He also ordered officials to ensure that the department’s guidance for disciplining workers for serious misconduct is consistent throughout the agency.

Kodra said she had to file a lawsuit the next year because DHS said she failed to prove that she suffered harassment and discrimination, though she had evidence showing that one of her supervisors sent her sexually explicit text messages.

Advocates say one way to try to reduce harassment and other problems within law enforcement agencies is to hire enough women to make up 30 percent of the workforce, based on research that indicates that percentage is the critical mass needed to change an organization’s culture. Research also shows that female officers are less likely to face lawsuits or to use excessive force, advocates say.

“You constantly hear that culture eats policy for breakfast,” said Ivonne Roman, a former police chief in Newark who co-founded the 30X30 Initiative, which launched in 2021 with the goal of increasing the share of female law enforcement officers in each recruiting class to 30 percent by 2030. “It doesn’t matter what policy you have written if you’re not addressing the culture.”

Nationwide, about 440 of the nation’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies have signed up for the initiative, including the Secret Service and Customs and Border Protection, which are part of DHS. CBP includes the Border Patrol, where about 6 percent of the agents are women.

Kristie Canegallo, acting DHS deputy secretary, last year called the gender gap in policing “a bona fide public safety crisis” and said the agency embraced the national goal. More than 30 percent of recent law enforcement hires at DHS were women, she said.

ICE’s most recent figures show that the share of female officers is 14 percent.

Kodra filed the federal lawsuit against DHS in October, alleging the department failed to protect her from harassment and retaliation. She is seeking a jury trial and an undisclosed amount of compensation.

In addition to interviewing Kodra for this story, The Washington Post reviewed DHS records she obtained as part of her initial complaint against Federico Madera, a former assistant field office director in Newark. The Post reviewed the 2023 DHS decision denying her harassment claim and sworn affidavits Madera provided to internal investigators in which he confirmed that he sent the text messages referenced in this article.

Madera called the messages “friendly banter,” according to copies of his sworn statements that Kodra shared with The Post. He denied grabbing Kodra, and said he tried to kiss her once on the cheek to congratulate her for graduating from the ICE academy but instead awkwardly kissed her forehead.

In telephone interviews with The Post, Madera said ICE never disciplined him for the text messages and that he retired in good standing. ICE confirmed that he is no longer with the agency.

In interviews, Kodra said she is a naturalized U.S. citizen who started as an ICE officer in Newark in 2019. She said she moved to the United States from Albania in 1999 as a teen, settled with her parents in New Jersey and became a U.S. citizen. She later worked for seven years as a Baltimore police officer.

After her father died in 2017, she wanted to move closer to her mother.

“I figured this job would be much better and safer,” she said.

Kodra had been on the job for a few weeks when Madera started texting her, activity that would span two years, she said in the lawsuit.

In one of the earliest messages, which began in April 2020, Madera asked if she thought they had “chemistry.”

“I should not have asked that question,” Madera, an immigration agent for about three decades, quickly followed up.

Kodra said in interviews that she had given Madera her phone number so he could advise her about housing and taxes.

“What do I do? Do I lose the job?” she said she asked herself. “It was scary because I already left a job and this was [on] probation.”

At first, she tried to change the subject.

“Omg is so cold out,” she replied to Madera’s message about chemistry, according to copies of the messages she provided to The Post. “Took the dogs out for a second and it’s freezing.”

Another time, Madera offered Kodra his family’s guest room if she needed a place to stay.

“Might get a middle of the night visitor though,” he texted, with laughing emojis.

“Haha,” she replied.

Kodra said she thought she could answer the questions and move on.

“He would remind me all the time I’m on probation,” she said in an interview. “I was under the impression that he hired me and that he could fire me. So I’m like, I don’t know how to act.”

Kodra said she began to feel like she was being blacklisted at work, according to the lawsuit. In her lawsuit, she alleges another supervisor, Brett Danielson, had brushed against her breasts in May 2021 and disparaged her at work, which he categorically denied to DHS, according to DHS’s written decision last year in response to her harassment claim and which is attached to her federal lawsuit.

ICE declined to make Danielson available for an interview and he did not respond to requests for comment. In his response to DHS, Danielson, who was not identified in the DHS decision until Kodra filed her lawsuit, said, “this incident never occurred.”

Kodra complained to the field office director about alleged mistreatment and inappropriate conduct by Danielson and another supervisor in September 2021, but she says nothing happened. The Newark office had been under scrutiny before: A 2016 internal review of the office requested by Field Office Director John Tsoukaris found a perception that female employees had to “sleep” with upper management to get promoted.

Tsoukaris, who is still the field office director, declined through a spokesman to comment, citing the pending litigation. But he told DHS that Kodra did not mention sexual harassment in her September 2021 complaint, according to court filings and the agency’s 2023 written decision.

In addition to the text messages, Kodra alleged in the lawsuit that Madera had grabbed her buttocks at work when nobody else was around and tried to kiss her.

In October 2021, Madera called her into his office and then dropped a paper clip in his lap and rubbed his crotch in front of her, she alleges. According to court records, Madera told investigators he dropped the paper clip accidentally and denied being inappropriate.

DHS said another manager told Kodra days later that she would be transferred to work at the local ICE detention center, which management said was to separate her and a female office assistant because they had a contentious working relationship, arguing over files, professional duties and personal space, according to court records.

Kodra worked at the local ICE detention center for the next two years, according to the complaint and her interviews with The Post. Kodra said she considered it retaliation for her resisting harassment, according to federal court records.

That month, Kodra decided to come forward with a complaint about DHS. That led to a formal complaint in February 2022 about Madera and others with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but she withdrew it after the judge limited the number of depositions she could take. She also read a news report that the judge rarely ruled in complainants’ favor. EEOC officials said the proceedings are confidential and declined to comment on them but said they are committed to fairness.

Kodra asked DHS to decide her complaint instead, an administrative process she had to undergo before she could file a lawsuit.

As part of an investigation by the ICE Office of Professional Responsibility, investigators questioned Madera in July 2022 and November 2022. At first Madera denied sending sexually explicit texts, according to his statements. He admitted sending them after Kodra showed copies to investigators.

Madera then told investigators the texts were consensual, according to the statements.

He said he asked Kodra if they had “chemistry” to see if they had “common ground.” He offered her his spare room as a joke.

He said he couldn’t remember why he texted “I like sex too.”

Madera said Kodra enticed him, which she denied. He said he had been seeking friendship and was stressed during the covid-19 lockdown.

“I did not realize how much I was struggling, but I now believe she saw it and exploited the situation,” he told investigators, according to the sworn statement he gave investigators in November 2022.

An investigator asked why Madera thought he could send explicit texts to a subordinate.

“I am ashamed of my behavior,” Madera said.

Kodra’s lawsuit said she felt frightened when Madera showed up at a gun range where agents train in December 2022 on the same day that she was scheduled to be there. Madera, in response to the allegation, emphatically told DHS officials that he did not know she would be at the range that day, federal records show.

In July 2023, the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties said Kodra failed to prove that ICE discriminated against her.

Adjudicator Amelia Demopulos wrote that Kodra had waited nearly two years to report Madera and did not mention him when she complained to ICE about other supervisors in September 2021.

She said Kodra’s texts with Madera amounted to mutual after-hours discussions.

“The vast majority of these messages were not of a sexual nature and appear to have occurred outside of the workplace (e.g.: references to being in pajamas, watching television, going to sleep),” Demopulos wrote.

Kodra’s lawyer, Paul Bartels, said DHS’s findings show how difficult it is for workers to win protections, even when they offer evidence such as inappropriate texts. He said many employees fear reporting it at all.

“It’s not that common to get that in writing,” he said, referring to Madera’s text messages. “It just shows you how it’s always against the employee, no matter what, even when you have smoking-gun evidence.”

Subjecting an employee to unwanted sexual jokes, messages or harassment violates Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Kodra’s lawsuit says.

ICE’s anti-fraternization policy discourages romantic or sexual relationships between supervisors and subordinates and says supervisors must avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Federal agencies train workers to report sexual harassment. But labor lawyers say training isn’t enough if agencies fail to discipline offenders.

“The #MeToo movement has not yet made it to federal law enforcement agencies,” said Washington labor lawyer Heidi Burakiewicz. “It is still this male-dominated field, and they haven’t gotten the message.”

Women at DHS are more likely than men to experience sexual harassment - 19 percent of women compared with 11 percent of men, according to a 2021 federal survey, which included employees beyond law enforcement.

Few reported it: The agency fielded 277 sexual harassment complaints during the past five years, mostly from women, federal reports show. During that same period, the government issued 10 decisions finding sexual harassment.

Some lawyers say federal employees are at a particular disadvantage because U.S. law gives them just 45 days to file a discrimination complaint about sexual harassment or another issue, compared with at least 180 days or longer for those who are not federal workers.

Emotional distress damages for workers who sue large employers under federal law are capped at $300,000, an amount that advocates say is low considering that many workers fear losing their jobs in retaliation for challenging harassment.

Kodra said the alleged harassment and the lengthy investigative process traumatized her. She is anxious, with dark circles under her eyes, and struggles to fall asleep. She feels shunned at work and fearful.

She had dreamed of working in ICE’s fugitive operations, hunting down criminals to deport them. Now she is unsure whether she has a future in law enforcement.

“This is going to follow me everywhere,” she said. “Everywhere I go for the rest of my life.”

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