Lawmakers upbraided the Federal Air Marshal Service at a House oversight committee hearing today for a raft of “outrageous and unacceptable” controversies among employees charged with protecting American air travelers, but praised the director’s efforts to address the problems.
Director Roderick Allison blamed the scandals on a handful of bad actors.
“Do I think we have a culture problem?” Allison asked. “No. I just think we have a handful of people who again think no one is looking and they can get away with this.”
Lawmakers referred repeatedly to recent media attention on the air marshals, including a February report by Reveal that showed air marshals had assignments rescheduled in exchange for sex, potentially leaving U.S. commercial flights uncovered. A criminal investigation continues.
U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, suggested that other government departments and agencies, such as the Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Secret Service, take note of Allison’s efforts to confront the issues and remove bad actors.
He also called on the U.S. Justice Department to not give government employees who engage in egregious misconduct a free pass by allowing them to retire instead of prosecuting them for crimes.
“I do think there is a lack of leadership” in our agencies, Chaffetz said, commending Allison for his work. “It leads to a negative culture and it leads to inaction. And that inaction festers. If you don’t dig out the root of that problem, it becomes a bigger infection.”
Other lawmakers had harsher words for the air marshals service, which has an annual budget of roughly $800 million.
“I personally think this Federal Air Marshal Service is one of the least needed organizations in our entire federal government,” said Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn. “It’s got to be one of the softest, easiest jobs in the federal government. … There are so many better things that this money could be and should be spent on.”
At the hearing, lawmakers also highlighted a report this week by The Intercept, in which Chicago-based air marshals reportedly used their government-issued phones to film a sexual fling with a prostitute. Two air marshals have been suspended while a third has resigned for what Chaffetz mockingly described as their “disguising themselves as pornography producers.”
“This behavior undermines your mission and the Americans the agency serves,” said Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., who also called into question the agency’s hiring practices. “These allegations are highly disturbing because they involve federal law enforcement officers. And Congress entrusts these men and women with a badge? A gun?”
Allison, who has led the agency since June 2014, acknowledged the issues but waved off any suggestion that they signaled broad cultural problems within the service. He called those involved “a disgrace to the profession” and pledged that they would be fired.
“We want quality applicants. I’d much rather not deal with bad employees,” he said. “The majority of our people when they hear about these things are sickened.”
Allison said he wants to weed out unsuitable applicants through polygraph exams and noted that the agency has amended its policy to prohibit air marshals from drinking alcohol within 10 hours of reporting for duty. The previous limit was four hours. The agency began preflight Breathalyzer screenings earlier this year and launched an alcohol awareness program soon after Allison took charge.
The air marshals’ parent agency, the Transportation Security Administration, has instituted guidelines for penalties stemming from misconduct to create what Heather Book, a top official, called a “consistent approach to accountability.”
Book declined to comment on the recent investigations other than to confirm that they are ongoing.
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., challenged Allison’s assertion that the reported scheduling allegations, cronyism, discrimination issues and alcohol and drug use within the agency were mere “challenges and opportunities.”
Allison told the committee that top officials learned about the air marshals involved in filming the sexual encounter, which reportedly occurred outside the United States, in June and said they were disciplined by mid-July. The investigation stemmed from an inquiry into an allegedly fraudulent worker’s compensation claim.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the ranking Democrat on the committee, alluded to cultural issues within the Secret Service, which also has been plagued reports of misconduct involving prostitutes while abroad, and asked Allison whether the air marshals had a similar problem.
Allison dismissed that suggestion. But current and former air marshals came to a different conclusion in a March story by Reveal that outlined a fraternity-house culture. Air marshals also have described job-related stress and burnout that has even given rise to suicide.
This story was edited by Amy Pyle and copy edited by Nikki Frick.