Last month's column on the TSA worker who jokingly planted a bag of white powder on a passenger at Philadelphia International Airport generated a half-million page views and scores of tips of other alleged abuses by those who work to keep us safe.
Until last week, none of those complaints involved Philadelphia.
Then I heard about Nadine Pellegrino, who learned just how powerful the government's word can be.
The businesswoman spent a night in the lockup at 55th and Pine after Transportation Security Administration agents said she assaulted them during a screening at the airport.
Pellegrino's story differs dramatically from statements TSA agents gave to police and made in court. A TSA spokesman said the agency cannot comment, because of pending litigation: Pellegrino and her husband, Harry Waldman, filed a civil rights suit against the agency in federal court in November.
In Pellegrino's view, she stepped into a Kafkaesque nightmare. In court testimony, the TSA workers said she was the nightmare.
She's a small, self-assured, and exacting woman who makes a living as a business consultant.
She used to be on the faculty at Penn State and the former Trenton State College, where she taught public speaking and semantics.
She was heading back to Boca Raton with her husband on July 29, 2006. They have a home in the Philadelphia area, where both grew up, and had been visiting family. They were to fly US Airways, upgraded to first class because of their frequent-flier status.
At security, Pellegrino, then 57, was selected for more intensive screening. She says no one explained why. When an agent plopped her bags onto a table to begin an examination, she objected, requesting a private screening, which she knew would summon a female TSA employee.
"I had some personal belongings in there," she said. "He also didn't use gloves. I get sick very quickly. I didn't want him introducing microbes in my bags."
When screener Nuyriah Abdul-Malik arrived, Pellegrino asked her to change her gloves. Inside a small room, Pellegrino got a thorough screening. The woman examined every inch of the bags, Pellegrino said, smelling lipstick, pulling out credit cards.
From here the stories diverge.
In Municipal Court that October, Abdul-Malik testified that Pellegrino had screamed at the TSA workers. "I could tell she was going to be one of those passengers," Abdul-Malik said, according to a transcript. Her supervisor, Laura Labbee, testified that Pellegrino was "authoritative, demanding," and insisted her belongings be replaced as carefully as they'd been packed. Labbee told her she could repack after the screening. Pellegrino, she said, called the TSA workers "bitches for doing this."
Then, Abdul-Malik said, as Labbee held the door for Pellegrino to leave, Pellegrino swung her carry-on bag into the supervisor's stomach. Labbee said, "Did you see her just hit me?"
Pellegrino then hit Abdul-Malik in the leg with a smaller bag, the agent testified. And after that, as Pellegrino flung several pairs of her sandals out of the room and toward a table, one struck Labbee in the leg. That was when the agents called police, Abdul-Malik testified.
Pellegrino tells a different story. She never brushed against either woman, and the sandals struck no one. She had to crawl on the floor to retrieve her bag because Abdul-Malik was blocking her way. She said she felt tension rise in the screening room when she asked the screener to take care with her change purse, which had belonged to her late father. Abdul-Malik then tore the fabric with her thumbs, Pellegrino said. She informed the two TSA workers that she was going to file a complaint.
Pellegrino concedes she did say to Labbee, "What is going on here? Both of you are behaving like bitches."
But the only time she yelled during the entire incident was that night, in jail, when a rat scurried across her cell. "I hate rodents," she said. She spent about 17 hours in jail.
Pellegrino did not speak at her preliminary hearing on 10 charges, two for felony assault. On the strength of the TSA workers' testimony, Judge James DeLeon asked, "So are we saying now that these people who work for us out of the Department of Homeland Security are to be subjected to any type of treatment . . . and that they're going to be ordered around as if they're handmaidens or somebody's servant, you know, as to how they pack bags or repack bags?"
The judge dismissed some of the more serious charges; Pellegrino was to be tried for simple assault and possession of an instrument of crime - her bag.
At a hearing in June 2007 before Municipal Judge Thomas F. Gehret, TSA and airport officials explained that there was no surveillance tape to show what had happened.
Airport manager Renee Tufts said all video is destroyed after 30 days unless a court or law enforcement agency requests otherwise. Although one of Pellegrino's attorneys had asked immediately that the tape be kept, TSA attorney Lisa Eckl said her agency did not keep the tape because most of the incident took place outside the cameras' view, either in the private screening room or at the doorway.
The judge questioned that. "With all the stuff that is happening, I would think you'd want to keep it - you could keep that forever," Gehret said, particularly since digital materials need so little storage space. Tufts testified that the electronic memory required to keep all tapes was not within the city's budget.
The trial in March 2008 was brief. The judge threw out all charges, saying Pellegrino had been denied the best evidence in her defense when the tapes were destroyed. She has since had her record expunged.
So, what happened, exactly? I wish I knew. Pellegrino concedes that the case still upsets her and maintains that her name has been wrongly maligned. She cannot let what happened go. She is representing herself in the federal suit.
"She's very thorough, very sharp," said Elliott Curson, the Philadelphia adman, who has known Pellegrino for 20 years. "I've never seen her get mad or violent. Maybe she felt they were putting her down."
Or maybe vice versa.
I have to think all parties involved wish they had just waved the woman through.