Employees fired in the wake of an undercover sting at Phoenix Newspapers Inc. say they have learned that honesty is not the best policy. Although they say they were assured they would not be fired if they were forthcoming about drug or alcohol use, some employees who confessed were terminated while trainees who kept their mouths shut kept their jobs.

They also say the drug sting was a smoke screen for union busting, and that most of the fired workers were more highly paid. Fired employees tell New Times that detectives from MarTech Incorporated, an investigative firm hired by PNI, entrapped them by planting an attractive, drug-starved woman in their midst, then pressed them to inform on their fellow workers. They say workers were grilled for as long as 12 hours by MarTech detectives, who cajoled some workers with promises of leniency and threatened others with harsh punishment for withholding information. Former employees also say MarTech detectives dictated confessions for the workers to write out and sign. The employees were then instructed to read their confessions aloud into a tape recorder in the presence of the detective and a PNI manager, the workers say.

"He told me word for word, sentence by sentence, what to put down on those pages," one fired worker says of a MarTech detective. "I would stop him and say, 'Listen, this is not the truth,' and he would say, 'Go ahead and put it down. It'll work out better this way.'"

Another fired worker says he felt so intimidated, he confessed to offenses he hadn't committed. "I felt powerless," he says. "If they'd told me I was shooting heroin on the floor, I'd agree to it."

Twenty-two workers were fired after MarTech conducted an eight- to ten-month undercover investigation that included following workers into bars near PNI printing plants and counting the number of drinks they consumed. Twenty-eight other PNI workers received suspensions ranging up to 90 days. Most were fired for breaking the company policy against using or possessing alcohol or illegal drugs in the workplace. (One worker, however, was reportedly fired for taking a newspaper home with him at the end of each shift.)

Those terminated are members of Phoenix Mailers Union Local 752, International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Union officials declined to comment, other than to say that they intend to file grievances on behalf of the fired workers and hope to get them reinstated.

MarTech officials referred inquiries to PNI, which referred inquiries to Marshall Anstandig, an attorney advising the company on labor issues.

"I'm confident and comfortable with the way that MarTech did the investigation," Anstandig says. "I am not aware of the complaints that have been mentioned to you."

While some fired employees admit that they had smoked marijuana or used other illicit drugs on lunch breaks, some of them had worked for the company for more than 20 years, and many had received commendations for their work. "You don't last in the mailroom at PNI for 20 years unless you're serious about your job," one worker says.

"This was just a big union-busting thing," says another fired employee. "Most of us that got fired were $20-an-hour guys. Guys who are making $8 or $10 an hour didn't get fired."

The workers say that under the union's most recent contract with PNI, newly hired employees will top out at $13 per hour. Anstandig says he hasn't researched the longevity of those fired, but "there probably were more journeymen [fired] . . . than there were trainees."

All of the six fired workers who contacted New Times say the MarTech detective told them they were under oath and would be guilty of perjury if they did not tell the truth. But two attorneys familiar with labor law say the workers could not have been under oath, and could not have committed perjury in a legal sense.

The fired workers say that once other mailroom employees learned how the interviews were being conducted, workers stopped making statements--a point confirmed by Anstandig. Employees in the second round of interrogations kept their mouths shut, and many escaped punishment or received suspensions, the fired workers say, while those who were honest and admitted to drug use were fired.

The workers say they were told that anyone who lost his job would be informed of the evidence against him, but that they have no idea what their specific misdeeds are. Anstandig says PNI is in the process of making that evidence available to the workers' union attorneys.

In a March 19 article announcing the undercover investigation, the Arizona Republic reported, "PNI has been a leader in the newspaper industry in promoting and encouraging the use of an Employee Assistance Program, a company-paid program to help workers with problems relating to drug and alcohol abuse. . . ."

That claim rings hollow to the fired mailroom workers. One worker who admitted he smoked marijuana says he confessed because he believed that PNI would allow him to keep his job and enter its drug-rehabilitation program. "They talk about what a good rehab program they have, but hardly anyone who has been fired has had a chance to go through rehab," the worker says. "Yet some of those people who only got suspensions have already been through rehab once and they've broken the rules again."

Anstandig notes that the Employee Assistance Program had been available to the workers for years. He says PNI management made a point of reminding workers that the program was available to them before MarTech completed its investigation. Moreover, he says, possession or sale of drugs does not necessarily constitute use, and the rehab program is designed for users only.

During the interrogations, the workers say, they were shown a "rat sheet"--a list of fellow employees--and asked to identify the ones they knew had used or sold drugs. The workers say that although drug use was common, there was no "drug ring" operating in the mailroom. "Everything was casual, and it was no big thing," one worker says.

"Let me put it this way," another says. "Nobody made any money selling drugs."

The workers say a nubile undercover operative known as Amanda pressured workers for any drug she could get her hands on. "Amanda would continually badger you all day long for crystal, pot and coke, and she was an attractive girl, and, naturally, guys would try to get close to her," one worker says.

One attorney who is familiar with labor law says that while PNI's and MarTech's tactics might be viewed as heavy-handed, it's unlikely that any crimes were committed against workers--unless they were detained against their will during interrogations.

"If you coerce someone, you might open yourself up to civil liability, but it's not a crime to lie to somebody," the attorney says.

The wife of one fired worker believes the episode is a crime. She says her husband and the others understand they broke rules, but that the mailers had been fiercely loyal to PNI, and in return, have been betrayed. Casual drug use had never been grounds for dismissal in the past--even for PNI managers, she says. She and the fired workers say treatment of PNI workers has deteriorated markedly in recent years.

"They lied to these guys. They told these guys, 'Tell us what you know, and you won't lose your job.' The guys thought it was their company talking, and they went along with it," she says. "PNI people don't understand how it's wrecking lives. This is all my husband has ever done--work for the newspaper."

A worker who was fired after nearly 20 years at PNI concludes, "It used to be like a big family at PNI. Not anymore. Eugene Pulliam must be rolling over in his grave.

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Jeremy Voas