Lawmakers from both parties on Thursday praised Transportation Security Administration officials for quickly disciplining federal air marshals allegedly involved in hiring prostitutes while on the job overseas and recording sex acts on their government phones.
Roderick Allison, head of the Federal Air Marshal Service, told a House committee that the agency found out about the misconduct in June and suspended all of them without pay by mid-July. One of those employees resigned in July; the other two are still on indefinite suspension pending the investigation. Allison told lawmakers that swift disciplinary action in such cases is not based solely on an allegation, but usually an admission of misconduct or “a strong set of facts.”
The male air marshals involved were not supervisors, Allison said. The director pledged to lawmakers that he was personally committed to ensuring that “these individuals are shown the door.”
The air marshals were all based in Chicago, the agency’s headquarters. The service discovered the criminal behavior and misuse of government property when a supervisor confiscated one of the employees’ cell phones because of questions over a worker’s compensation claim.
“I have been very impressed with the openness and transparency,” of the Federal Air Marshal Service, said House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, during a hearing Thursday afternoon. “We’ve had a series of different agencies that have come before us, and basically they said they couldn’t take decisive action,” said Chaffetz, citing the Drug Enforcement Administration, Secret Service and the Environmental Protection Agency. “We’ve had some very salacious conduct from some of their employees,” and the agencies did not fire them, place them on leave, or revoke their security clearances, Chaffetz noted.
Allison gave detailed, private briefings to Chaffetz and committee Ranking Member Elijah Cummings, D-Md., on Wednesday night related to the incident involving the three air marshals.
“Based on the limited information the committee has obtained to date, it appears that managers at your agency have been acting appropriately, using existing legal authorities to investigate and take action on these cases,” Cummings said. “We want bad employees to be rooted out as quickly as possible because they give a bad name to the vast majority of federal workers who devote their entire careers and lives to this nation. We also want to protect the rights of employees accused of misconduct to ensure that they have due process to defend themselves against accusations that are false.”
Cummings praised Allison for taking the disciplinary authority he had and using it, which “not all agencies do.”
Chaffetz said he thought the committee would “find another agency that wasn’t dealing with it in an appropriate way” but that hasn’t been the case so far with the Federal Air Marshal Service, which is part of TSA and the Homeland Security Department. The Secret Service is also part of DHS; DEA’s parent agency is the Justice Department. Still, Chaffetz added that FAMS transparency and “decisive action” did not mean the committee would give them “a free pass.”
Chaffetz pressed Allison on how many times the marshals allegedly engaged in misconduct. “I’m not aware of the frequency,” Allison said. “But it happened more than once,” Chaffetz said, to which Allison replied, “I suspect you’re right.”
Prior to the hearing, Chaffetz spoke briefly with reporters. “It’s not just those three,” the chairman said about the alleged misconduct at the agency. “And it’s not just that incident,” adding that there were “more than a dozen” incidents being investigated currently.
The Federal Air Marshal Service has been plagued by embarrassing incidents involving employees engaging in bad behavior over the past few years. In February, media reports surfaced about a TSA employee who used her position to gain access to personnel files and flight schedules to identify air marshals she wanted to have sex with. That case is still under investigation.
Allison, who has been head of the agency since June 2014, described his proactive approach toward inspiring and leading employees, helping those who need it, and swiftly disciplining those engaged in misconduct. Allison has held 50 town halls with employees across the country since taking over at the agency and created an alcohol awareness initiative to combat alcohol and substance abuse problems among employees, a thorny problem for FAMS and other law enforcement agencies. Federal air marshals are subject to random drug and alcohol testing and cannot drink alcohol 10 hours prior to flight duty.
“I have to candidly admit that there are people who don’t feel like the rules apply to them,” Allison told lawmakers, but also added that he doesn’t think the agency has a culture problem. “They don’t wear a T-shirt, you have to find them.”