TSA Tries to Put Reports of Screeners Stealing and Sleeping on the Job in Perspective

A TSA screener searched a bag in Atlanta in 2011. A TSA screener searched a bag in Atlanta in 2011. Erik S. Lesser/AP file photo

Television news segments this week have embarrassed the Transportation Security Administration with images of airport screeners sleeping on the job or stealing iPads left by passengers in bins at metal detectors.

On Wednesday, agency officials pushed back, telling skeptical House members that, on the whole, TSA’s workforce of 56,000 does a good job and that tough disciplinary procedures against “knuckleheads” are in place.

Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., who chaired the joint hearing of Homeland Security subcommittees, warned witnesses that “with countless TSA misconduct cases spread throughout the country, confidence in airport security is quickly waning.” Giving examples such as cash thefts from travelers in Newark, N.J., a stun-gun-toting rape suspect penetrating security at New York City’s biggest airport, and a wheelchair-bound girl with spina bifida being detained on her way to Disney World, Duncan said, “TSA must do more to focus on the true threats and stop with invasive screening of low-risk travelers.”

He cited a new Government Accountability Office report showing that TSA has weak and inconsistent standards and procedures for investigating and adjudicating misconduct cases. According to TSA data, out of 56 cases of theft or unauthorized taking from fiscal 2010 through fiscal 2012, 31 resulted in termination, 11 in letters of reprimand, 11 in suspension for a defined period, two in indefinite suspension, and one in resignation, Duncan noted. And TSA’s effort to standardize discipline -- its table of offenses and penalties -- lacks a requirement for a letter of reprimand. “Where is the consistency?” he asked.

GAO ’s review of 9,600 cases of employee misconduct from fiscal 2010-2012, found an increase of nearly 700 cases. About 32 percent of the offenses related to attendance while 20 percent affected screening and security, such as allowing patrons or baggage to pass without inspection.

GAO analyst Steve Lord testified that while TSA has improved its training and tracking of its disciplinary adjudication process, it could use additional procedures to monitor compliance. “This is a timely hearing given recent press accounts and TSA’s efforts to address the problems,” he said. “But I wouldn’t want to mislead people because a few bad apples soil the reputation of the whole workforce.”

Defending TSA’s 47,000 screeners who process 1.8 million passengers a day was John Halinski, the agency’s deputy administrator. “The majority of our employees perform well, but if not, we take prompt and appropriate action” he said. “We are in the public eye more than any other organization of government. Our reputation is tarnished whenever we fail to uphold the public trust.”

Employees caught sleeping on the job or stealing account for less than 1 percent of the workforce, Halinski said, though “even that is too many.” He assured lawmakers that investigations are conducted that can involve law enforcement and result in termination. “If we can prove drugs, or stealing or breaching national security, I give you my word they are immediately out the door,” he said. “But workers are innocent until proven guilty. If we can’t prove [a crime], then there’s a process of adjudication, a recommendation for punishment and an appeal process.”

If an employee is tardy, “it is disruptive, but it’s not a firing offense,” Halinski said. “It gets back to human nature -- no one’s on their game 100 percent of the time.” A letter of reprimand, Halinski said, “is no light thing -- it can mean no bonus for that year and remains in an employee’s personnel file.

Annually updated training is emphasized at TSA, Halinski said, noting that Administrator John Pistole in 2011 established an Office of Training and Workforce Engagement and the Office of Professional Responsibility to address ethics and training.

Recruiting is done through USAJobs and social media, he said, and all candidates undergo a credit and fingerprint check since “we need people with potential to hold a security clearance.”

The workforce is kept updated on the offenses and penalties imposed on co-workers at 450 airports via a monthly newsletter, which “sends a signal that we take the offenses seriously and we have consistency across the board,” the deputy said. The agency has also better integrated its database to allow trend analysis of offenses, he said.

Finally, Halinski, stressed that too few news reports feature TSA employees who help the public -- 10 of them saved lives in the past year, he said, mentioning one who rescued a victim from a burning car and another who talked down an errant pilot.

Republicans, many of whom have called for privatization of TSA, were generally skeptical of TSA’s work, with Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., asking whether the agency still “recruits using tops of boxes of pizza and discount gas station pumps.” (Halinski said “no.”) Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., asked the TSA representative, “If one bomb gets on an airplane, what should be the penalty for that [TSA] individual?”

Democrats were more inclined to praise the agency, with Rep. Ron Barber, D-Ariz., saying that after observing TSA during his weekly flights, “the public is always treated with respect and professionalism, though problems remain.” Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., noted that the post-9/11 circumstances of TSA’s development give the administrator “broad latitude” to discipline workers, who were only recently permitted to unionize but still lack civil service appeal rights.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said, “I don’t wish to make light of sleeping on the job, but it’s less than 1 percent of the incidents. Some advocate doing away with this vital Transportation Security Officer workforce and using private contractors, but there’s no evidence it lowers costs.”

Rep. Shelia Jackson Lee, D-Texas., said TSA employees deserved commendation as well as criticism and needed improved professional development. “Let’s print the good stories, let’s not hide the good stories,” she said.

Deborah Outten-Mills, acting assistant inspector general for inspections at the Homeland Security Department, reported that in fiscal 2012, her office received some 16,400 complaints of misconduct departmentwide, 1,358 of which were TSA-related. The IG initiated investigations for 90 cases and referred some 1,268 to TSA’s Office of Inspection. “We determined that TSA employee background investigations met federal adjudicative standards, but were not timely,” she said.

Duncan ended by saying TSA needs to crack down further, saying, “The American people see a slap on the wrist as not enough disciplinary action being taken.”

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