TSA chief says agency no longer retaliating against whistleblowers

TSA chief says agency no longer retaliating against whistleblowers

The head of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) told a House panel that he has ended the agency’s controversial practice of unfairly reassigning employees who report waste, fraud or abuse since stepping into the role last year.

TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger, testifying in front of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Thursday, outlined a number of steps he has taken over the past year to boost workplace morale, reform senior management and train checkpoint screeners to better identify security threats.

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A Homeland Security inspector general’s report unveiled in June 2015 found that auditors were able to smuggle fake explosives and weapons past TSA screeners 95 percent of the time.

After he came to TSA in July, Neffenger discovered “systematic problems” in training and equipment use. He instituted a retraining of the entire workforce, known as  “mission essentials,” that took two months and included even the most senior management.

The agency increased its internal covert testing and began offering rewards for those who performed well, with Neffenger receiving daily performance reports.

Neffenger also said a number of people have been fired at all levels across the agency.

But lawmakers pressed Neffenger on how he is tackling allegations  — made by TSA whistleblowers in another committee hearing last month — that senior managers often use “directed reassignments” and early retirements to force out disliked employees or to retaliate against those who report waste, fraud and abuse.

Whistleblowers said the practice is particularly alarming because it prevents TSA from addressing critical security gaps.

Andrew Rhoades, assistant federal security director for TSA’s office of security operations, said he was abruptly issued a directed reassignment because a supervisor believed he was leaking information to the local press.

Neffenger assured the panel that unjustified reassignments are not happening under his watch.

“I discontinued directed reassignments explicitly,” Neffenger said. “I don’t tolerate that. It’s illegal, unethical and most of those people doing directed reassignments no longer work at the agency.”

He also pointed out that directed reassignments, which he acknowledged could cost upward of $100,000 per employee, occurred before Neffenger arrived at the agency.

Neffenger emphasized that he supports Rhoades, and others, in coming forward with their claims.

“So if there are people watching this at TSA who feel they are being wrongfully retaliated against, you’re saying you have an open door?” asked the panel’s ranking member, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.)

“They can come directly to me,” Neffenger said.

Not every lawmaker was convinced that TSA operations are running any smoother, especially in the face of growing airport lines and severe staffing shortages.

Members criticized the agency for spending $1.1 billion on administrative duties while only spending $1.9 billion on screening efforts, although House appropriators recently approved a TSA request to shift $34 million in its budget to help ease airport wait times.

Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) detailed his most recent experience at an airport, or what he described as “the night from hell,” in which every member of his group missed their flights because they were waiting in security lines while a number of lanes were closed and TSA staff stood around.

“I was on the phone for hours,” Mica said. “And you can't get a hold of a damn person in TSA, even as a member of Congress."