Ex-Cape resident's CIA suit story topic gains attention

Thursday, May 16, 2002

Former Cape Girardeau resident Jeffrey Sterling has garnered national publicity for filing a racial discrimination lawsuit against the Central Intelligence Agency for which he once worked as a spy.

People magazine featured Sterling's case in this week's edition in a story headlined "Out in the Cold."

Sterling's mother, Helen Sterling, who lives in Cape Girardeau, praised her son's actions.

"I am proud of my son. He is doing the right thing." said Helen Sterling, whose family has had a history of filing lawsuits alleging racial discrimination.

"I instilled in him to be a fighter," she said.

The New York Times wrote about Jeffrey Sterling's lawsuit in March, and the story was carried in an Associated Press story that appeared in the Southeast Missourian on March 3.

That's when Helen Sterling learned that her son had been a CIA spy for eight years.

"I said, 'Ooh, so that's what he's been doing,'" she told People magazine. "He never discussed his job."

Jeffrey Sterling, 34, believes racism destroyed his CIA career, an allegation that the spy agency denies. He filed the federal lawsuit in New York last August, becoming the first black case officer to sue on racial discrimination grounds. The CIA fired him two months later.

Sterling graduated from Cape Girardeau Central High School in 1985 and from Millikin University in Decatur, Ill., in 1989.

He joined the CIA in 1993 after a stint as a public defender in St. Louis. Two years later, the Washington University Law School graduate became a case officer in the Iran Task Force.

Stacked deck claimed

He spent a year studying Farsi, the language of Iran. The CIA sent him to Bonn, Germany, in 1997 to recruit Iranians as agents. But he said he became frustrated when he wasn't given new prospects to recruit.

He returned to CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., to confront his supervisors.

"They said, 'Well, you kind of stick out as a big, black guy,'" Sterling is quoted as saying.

He ended up working at CIA headquarters before being assigned to the agency's New York office in 1999 to once again recruit Iranians.

In April 2000, Sterling complained to the agency's Equal Employment Opportunity office. The agency placed him on administrative leave in March 2001. Five months later, he filed his lawsuit. "The deck was stacked against me," he told People magazine.

Sterling is the youngest of six sons of Helen Sterling, 67, who worked as Cape Girardeau's municipal court clerk for a dozen years.

She resigned in October 1987 amid allegations of missing money. Sterling pleaded guilty to felony stealing in January 1988 after state auditors found at least $63,000 missing from a bond account. She was sentenced to a suspended seven-year prison term, placed on probation and ordered to pay $30,000 in restitution.

In July 1993, court officials disclosed that Sterling made restitution of less than $3,000. Sterling's probation ended on May 24, 1993, with a restitution "balance due" of $27,781.57, court records showed.

The sentencing judge, Perry County Associate Circuit Judge Michael Bullerdieck, decided against revoking her probation.

He cited Sterling's age and health as reasons why she was unable to make restitution to the city.

Mother's lawsuits

The People magazine story makes no mention of Helen Sterling's conviction and simply describes her as "a retired municipal court clerk."

Helen Sterling has filed several lawsuits over the years and said she'll file more if she feels wronged.

In 1991, she claimed she was denied food stamps and energy assistance because of race and "political beliefs."

"I live in a small town. It is known I had this felony charge," she said in that lawsuit. The U.S. Agriculture Department found no evidence of discrimination in that case.

Helen Sterling said Wednesday that she'll continue to fight against racism. "I am proud I don't duck my head in the sand," she said.

"I hope my son will come back to Cape and make this a better place to live," she said.


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