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Arbitrator orders cleared NY border agent reinstated

Friday, June 13, 2008

By CAROLYN THOMPSON, Associated Press Writer

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — 

A federal arbitrator has ordered U.S. Customs and Border Protection to reinstate an officer who was fired over a confrontation with a Chinese tourist even after he had been acquitted in a criminal case.

The arbitrator also ruled this week that Robert Rhodes should receive back pay with interest.

Rhodes was arrested in 2004 and accused of pushing a female tourist's head to the pavement and striking her with his knee after she ran from him and other border agents at the Rainbow Bridge in Niagara Falls.

The officers mistakenly believed the woman was a drug smuggler.

A U.S. District Court jury in 2005 acquitted Rhodes of violating the tourist's civil rights but Homeland Security officials refused to give him his job back, saying Rhodes had acted too quickly to pepper spray the woman and lied about his actions.

Rhodes was suspended without pay after the incident and fired in April 2006.

"The arbitrator made it crystal clear there was no credibility to the agency's position, that none of the allegations against Rob were credible and that Rob acted absolutely appropriately," said Rhodes' lawyer, Steven Cohen. "It is a complete vindication for Rob."

Cohen said Customs and Border Protection officials have 30 days to contact Rhodes with a start date for his return to work, though the agency may appeal the arbitrator's ruling.

CBP spokesman Kevin Corsaro said he could not comment on the case because of ongoing litigation.

Rhodes, who has two pending lawsuits over the firing, said he was forced to live on public assistance and food stamps while out of work and caring for his elderly father. He said he is eager to return to the position he held for 17 years. He was earning about $70,000 a year with overtime, he said.

"I recently had my uniform pressed and cleaned and I'm ready to go back," he said.

The tourist, Zhao Yan, has filed a $10 million lawsuit against the United States.

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