Persistent misconduct by managers at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) often goes unpunished and whistleblowers who report it as well as airport safety risks are penalized by senior officials, a bipartisan congressional investigation has concluded. The multi-billion-dollar government agency created after 9/11 to secure the nation’s transportation system operates under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and has around 65,000 employees. For nearly a decade Judicial Watch has reported extensively—and uncovered records—about its serious transgressions and failure to adequately fulfill its mission. The TSA is charged with securing transportation by adequately screening luggage, passengers and properly vetting foreign flight students. Instead, the agency is best known for its shameful security lapses and efforts to cover them up. In this case, DHS obstructed the federal probe by withholding documents and information from Congress.
For the last three years a probe led by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has primarily focused on retaliation against TSA whistleblowers who report malfeasance within the ranks or security lapses. Among the preferred methods of punishment are cumbersome reassignments up to thousands of miles from home. Earlier this year three TSA supervisors punished with relocation after exposing airport safety risks received compensatory damages and two were allowed to return to their original location. The Office of Special Counsel (OSC), the agency charged with protecting federal employees from retribution for whistleblowing, represented the supervisors who worked as deputy federal security directors in Hawaii before getting shipped off to California and Washington State. The TSA supervisors had reported mismanagement and distressingly lax airport security protocols.
That type of retaliation is par for the course at the TSA, according to the broad investigation conducted by Congress. In its lengthy report, “Misconduct, Retaliation, and Obstruction at the Transportation Security Administration,” the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee writes that it found “recurrent misconduct with minimal consequences” at the TSA. This includes sexual harassment and relocation of whistleblowers suspected of having unauthorized contact with the media. “The Committee found current and former senior TSA managers engaged in misconduct with alarming frequency, and routinely received favorable treatment during the disciplinary process,” the report states, adding that senior officials often circumvented the disciplinary process to avoid repercussions for the actions. “The toxic combination of unchecked misconduct by senior officials and retaliation against rank-and-file whistleblowers undermined employee morale, reflected in the agency’s astronomical attrition rates (as high as 20 percent in some segments of the workforce during the period in question) and abysmal ranking in a government-wide job satisfaction survey (336 out of 339 agencies and components in 2017),” according to the report.
A multitude of alarming examples are embedded in the document, including a deputy assistant administrator who should have been fired after speeding down a one-way street in the wrong direction while intoxicated then lying to police. Other TSA officials who escaped discipline include supervisors who engaged in inappropriate behavior with subordinates, a director at a Midwest airport who made sexually and racially offensive comments and engaged in inappropriate conduct and a slew of sexual misconduct by high-ranking officials. “The Committee received examples of senior level officials committing egregious acts of misconduct, being investigated for those acts, and then receiving a mild punishment not rising to the level required by the Table of Penalties,” the House report states. “This pattern of mitigation allowed senior level managers at TSA to continue their misconduct, and consequently, decrease morale within the agency.”
Among those who suffered retaliation for reporting bad behavior is a TSA security director who testified before Congress about the reassignments that he told lawmakers “have been punitively used by TSA senior leadership as a means to silence dissent, force early retirement or resignations.” The chastened official’s name is Andrew Rhoades and this is what he told Congress under oath after getting deployed from his longtime home in Minnesota to Florida for denouncing wrongdoing: “Senior leader misconduct and retaliation, if left unaddressed, will place the American public at risk as managers are more worried of retaliation from their own supervisors than they are focused on defeating the threat. Directed reassignments, retaliation and misconduct are inextricably intertwined and help explain why the TSA underperforms.”
“Based on the classified and unclassified documents we have obtained and the interviews we have conducted over the past three years, I believe urgent reforms are necessary to improve security operations, personnel management, and transparency at TSA,” committee Ranking Member Elijah Cummings said in a statement. “We must redouble our oversight efforts while also moving to implement concrete reforms.”
The report said the agency has suffered under an attrition rate of more than 20 percent in some certain parts of the workforce, and the Partnership for Public Service’s 2017 Best Places to Work rankings rated TSA as 336 out of 339 agency subcomponents. The only agencies that ranked lower were the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, the Commerce Department’s National Technical Information Service and the Secret Service.
The committee began investigating TSA in 2015 after catching wind of whistleblower retaliation allegations, and accusations of other misconduct.
In a 2016 letter to TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger, then-committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R–Utah) and Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) questioned whether agency workers were wrongly given involuntary reassignments to different workplaces or retaliated against. The inquiry was sparked by a memo sent out by TSA’s Office of Human Capital, which effectively put the brakes on the agency’s pending requests to involuntarily relocate employees.
Later, in April 2016, three TSA employees testified before Congress about the agency’s management, sharing personal anecdotes of abuse and harassment from senior executives that they said created a hostile, oppressive culture.
“I call it the Lord of the Flies; you either attack or be attacked,” said Mark Livingston, then-program manager in the Office of the Chief Risk Officer, during the 2016 hearing.
In May 2016, then-TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger said he was waiting for the Office of Special Counsel to finish its investigation into whistleblower retaliation before disciplining anyone. But OSC was unable to finish its investigation because DHS’ OGC directed TSA to claim certain documents as protected attorney-client communications.
The committee was forced to subpoena the documents in 2017. However, many were still held back, and those that were turned over were heavily redacted with little-to-no justification. DHS and TSA continue to refuse to provide the full scope of unredacted documents, the report said.
The report also detailed multiple instances of TSA senior leadership conducting themselves inappropriately. One executive pursued a relationship with a subordinate, then admitted to purposely misleading investigators. Though OPR recommended dismissal, he agreed to a settlement including a 14-day suspension and demotion, but no loss of pay.
Another executive was convicted of driving while intoxicated, and attempted to claim falsely to police that she wasn’t operating the vehicle, but a member of TSA’s Aviation Security Advisory Committee was. Again, OPR recommended dismissal, but the executive settled for a 14-day suspension.
A third executive got away with sexually harassing employees, and making racially offensive remarks for seven years before finally being dismissed.
“Our corporate culture is analogous to the movie Animal House, while the relationship between our headquarters and the field is best depicted in the TV series Game of Thrones,” said Andrew Rhoades, then-assistant federal security director in the Office of Security Operations at TSA, during the 2016 hearing.
“TSA officials involved in wrongdoing remain in senior positions, a number of OSC whistleblower cases have yet to be resolved, and TSA and DHS OGC continue to obstruct the Committee’s investigation,” the report said. “The Department’s posture on oversight—especially on issues which threaten to undermine TSA’s core mission—signals the underlying problems are not likely to be addressed by current leadership.”