TSA Misconduct Allegations—Up 29%—Include Prostitution, Smuggling, Sexual Assault on Travelers

Friday, July 08, 2016
TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger (photo: Bloomberg/Getty Images)

By Tim Ryan, Courthouse News Service


WASHINGTON (CN) - Allegations of employee misconduct at the Transportation Security Administration increased by nearly 29 percent between 2013 and 2015, a congressional report (pdf) released Thursday found.


The misconduct described in the report goes as high as senior management. It includes instances of TSA air marshals allegedly bringing prostitutes to hotel rooms paid for with government dollars, and of employees "facilitating" drug and human smuggling, or even sexually assaulting travelers.


"Employee misconduct of all types corrupts TSA's core mission to protect the traveling public and poses serious security vulnerabilities," the report reads. "Every minute TSA is forced to handle misconduct is one minute less that they could be addressing security matters."


More than 1,200 employees at TSA in that time period had at least five allegations filed against them, according to the report. Though some of the allegations are salacious, attendance issues or failures to follow instructions represent the majority of reported misconduct between 2013 and 2015.


The report, the result of a joint investigation with the majority staffs of the House Subcommittees on Transportation Security and Oversight and Management Efficiency, blames the surge in misconduct in part on a "bloated" bureaucracy that forces multiple offices within the TSA to juggle investigations.


"We have to have that level of expectation of excellence," Rep. Scott Perry said at the hearing. "We're not often or often enough going to meet that but we have to have that expectation that we're going to strive for that every single time."


There is a lack of coordination across airports on misconduct issues, said Perry, a Pennsylvania Republican who chaired a joint hearing Thursday of the subcommittees that produced the report.


He noted that some airports have staff members dedicated to evaluating these allegations against TSA employees, but others do not.


The report also found nothing that "connects" recommendations made by top-level TSA officials with employees on the ground at airports.


"TSA's big government, bureaucratic response has failed," Perry said. "It has failed TSA's employees and it has failed the American public and the taxpayers."


Despite the increase in allegations of misconduct against TSA officers, investigations into these complaints have dropped, the report found. In 2013 the TSA investigated 6 percent of misconduct allegations, while in 2015 it looked into just 4 percent.


Even when it did conduct an investigation, the TSA disciplined employees less harshly by 2015, the report found. The TSA decreased its use of lighter suspensions and letters of reprimand by 14 percent, while harsher, "adverse" actions — like demotion, removal or more lengthy suspensions — sank by 23 percent, according to the report.


At the same time the TSA's use of nondisciplinary action — like sending employees to counseling or for additional training — jumped up 80 percent, according to the report.


The 29-page report echoes past allegations against the agency and comments from whistleblowers who say the agency cracks down on people who report misconduct through forced transfers and reductions in pay.


Long wait times, lax security checks and allegations of rampant mismanagement have plagued the TSA in the past year, causing agency head Peter Neffenger to become something of a fixture at Capitol Hill oversight hearings.


He has assured lawmakers in the past that the TSA is moving in the right direction and taking seriously the problems that have dogged it in the past. Last month Neffenger told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs the TSA is making significant improvements on wait times that have frustrated passengers.


While Neffenger was not at the hearing Thursday examining the findings in the report, TSA Deputy Administration Huban Gowadia was there to defend the agency.


She highlighted new training programs and new controls on bonuses paid out to agency heads, saying these steps will help curb misconduct at all levels. Gowadia saw the increase in reported misconduct as a positive thing, saying it means more employees are blowing the whistle on problems they see.


Still, she acknowledged the problems identified in the committee's report and called for more training for employees to help keep misconduct in check.


"We do have some issues with misconduct and even one case is one case too many," Gowadia said at the hearing.


Responding to the committee's recommendation for the agency to have its Office of Human Capital review misconduct data and put together best practices for addressing allegations, Gowadia said Neffenger has asked her to look into management of the TSA's workforce.


While the report the committee produced is a scathing indictment of the TSA's disciplinary policies and employee morale and behavior, Gowadia assured lawmakers the agency is aware of its problems and how they play into its mandate to keep air travel safe.


"Our conduct permeates everything we do," Gowadia said at the hearing. "So to the extent that we can separate more the egregious [misconduct] and give more time to training and retraining and continue to raise the professionalism of the entire workforce, we will continue to do so." 


To Learn More:

Misconduct at TSA Threatens the Security of the Flying Public (by Rep. Scott Perry and Rep. John Katko, House Homeland Security Committee) (pdf)

“Retaliatory Culture” at TSA has “Paralyzed” Agency and Compromised Security Goals, Say Whistleblowers (by Tim Ryan, Courthouse News Service)

TSA Accused of Firing Agent for Being a Witch (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

TSA Official Warned Airports in Advance of Secret Security Tests (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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