Poor leadership and a culture of retaliation are making it harder for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to address security gaps, employees of the agency said Wednesday.
TSA employees told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that workers are afraid to speak up about problems at the agency and feel as though they will be unfairly punished, despite promises of protection from TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger.
“You should be alarmed and concerned with these issues, because TSA employees are less likely to report operational security threats or relevant issues out of fear of retaliation,” said Mark Livingston, program manager for TSA’s office of the chief risk officer. “No one who reports issues is safe at TSA.”
The agency ranked as one of the worst places to work in federal government last year, coming in at 313 out of 320 in the annual survey by the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit.
Witnesses at Wednesday's hearing emphasized the agency's problems stem from a select group of executive leaders who are unqualified and abuse their power but have managed to keep their jobs.
“From 2011 to early 2015, TSA chose, in abundance, unprepared employees to fill key senior leadership vacancies,” said Jay Brainard, federal security director at TSA’s Kansas office of security operations. “Many of these leaders lacked any security experience or had ever worked in a field operation their entire career.”
The whistleblowers said senior managers often use directed reassignments and early retirements to force out disfavored employees.
Livingston told lawmakers he was demoted and lost $10,000 from his annual salary after reporting that a coworker was sexually harassing another employee.
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.
Rhoades also said that after he refused to follow orders and racially profile Somali community members, he contacted his administrator and chief counsel, but never heard back.
Lawmakers questioned whether the culture at TSA is contributing to an environment of waste, singling out a randomizer app to manage lines that was part of a $1.4 million TSA contract and is no longer used.
Rhoades pointed to another example. He said TSA built a $300,000 regional office in Minneapolis for a regional director that had no intention of ever being based in the city, but no one listened to Rhoades when he raised the issue. Now, the unused office is being converted into a coordination center, but for another additional cost, he said.
“When you make suggestions like that, you get cut out of the meeting or you’re not consulted anymore,” Rhoades said. “It’s gross mismanagement”
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), ranking member on the oversight panel, said Congress would protect whistleblowers and appreciates their willingness to speak up.
But he also cautioned that lawmakers have not yet heard from TSA about the allegations and said the committee is obligated to complete a thorough investigation on the claims.
“Each allegation we have heard deserves a thorough and fair investigation,” Cummings said. “I think these three employees deserve that.”