posted 2012-03-22 00:35:40

FBI Interrogates Student at Hunter Public Safety Office

USG student senator lured into room with FBI under false pretenses

John Bolger

News Editor

FBI agents came to Hunter College earlier this month to investigate a student. The agents summoned the student to the office of Public Safety using the lieutenant’s office and telephone. According to the student, the FBI agents called his cell phone claiming to be Public Safety officers and did not reveal their true affiliation until he arrived to the lieutenant’s office where he was interrogated behind closed doors.

Public Safety confirmed that the FBI agents had in fact used their office and telephone for the investigation but stated that they did not give the FBI any information about the student. Public Safety also claimed to have no knowledge as to the nature of the FBI’s visit nor any information about what transpired in the lieutenant’s office.

“It felt like they were playing games with me,” said Jose, the student in question, a USG student senator who preferred to have his last name withheld for safety reasons. Jose has a history of participation in political activism, calling himself a “radical organizer.” He added that he has been actively involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement. “I think they were fishing for information and attempting to intimidate me and others around me,” he said.

According to Jose, the three FBI agents said they were from the “regional hate crimes working group” and that they were asking him questions about his role in “anti-fascist” protests. Jose said that the agents had told him that the only information they had on him was his arrest record, however he was shocked when one of the agents indicated to him that they knew that he was Panamanian. “I never told that to a police officer and that wouldn’t be in any arrest record of mine,” he said.

The hate crime working groups “combine community and law enforcement resources to develop strategies to address local hate crime problems,” according to the FBI’s website. The website also maintains that the federal government reserves the right to “investigate and prosecute crimes of bias as civil rights violations ... These efforts serve as a backstop for state and local authorities.”

A Public Safety administrator from CUNY outside of Hunter College told the Envoy that when a third-party police agency wants to question a student for an investigation that the decision to cooperate is made on a case by case basis. The administrator indicated that it was not unusual for Public Safety offices to help investigators reach a student in cases when the police agency gave Public Safety a sound justification. “You’re not going to have a Public Safety protocol that is overarching in telling us what we can do,” the administrator told the Envoy on the condition on anonymity, “we have a set of tools and decide when to use them.”

“I think it is an outrage that Public Safety and the administration is cooperating with federal agents to investigate and intimidate students on campus,” Jose said.

Meredith Halpern, executive director of marketing and communications at Hunter, said that this recent incident with the FBI was the result of a “miscommunication between the FBI and our Public Safety” and that the school only provides third parties with student information when a subpoena is presented or when the student consents, in accordance with the Federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974. “We deeply regret that in this instance protocol was not followed,” she said, referring to protocol disallowing third parties to use Public Safety offices and telephones. “We are in the process of working with and retraining our officers to make sure that our protocols are strictly adhered to.”

Halpern also said that the FBI contacts the school for “background checks” before hiring a prospective employee. The Public Safety office told the Envoy that such background checks were routine and sometimes happened as often as ten times per week.

Jose said he has not been contacted by the FBI or any other police agency since the incident.