By Alan Maimon


August 17, 2008


Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has called on the Transportation Security Administration to investigate whether Las Vegas-assigned air marshals have been appropriately sanctioned for acts including drunken driving and reckless use of weapons.


Reid, D-Nev., also said he plans to advance legislation strengthening the rights of whistleblowers in the air marshal service and other federal agencies.


Reid’s statements were prompted by a Review-Journal story earlier this month about the Federal Air Marshal Service’s Las Vegas office. The story contrasted the apparently light punishments given to misbehaving agents, with the severe discipline handed down to marshals critical of agency policy.


“I believe it is very important for the Transportation Security Administration to fully examine these allegations,” the Nevada senator said.


The Federal Air Marshal Service is the primary law enforcement entity within the TSA.


Its armed agents help protect commercial flights against terrorist attacks.


TSA spokesman Nelson Minerly said his agency responds promptly to concerns from Congress, but he said incidents highlighted in the Review-Journal were “the isolated actions of a very few over the course of many years.”


The newspaper found that, since 2001, at least six air marshals assigned to Las Vegas have been criminally or internally investigated for misconduct.


Minerly said all the situations cited by the newspaper were thoroughly investigated and properly resolved.


He denied that his agency has mistreated whistleblowers: “The Federal Air Marshal Service maintains a policy of zero tolerance of retaliation in the workplace against an employee for raising a concern or complaint through any established formal or informal process.


“Any Federal Air Marshal Service employee who in good faith reports waste, fraud, abuse, mismanagement, or a violation of the law or agency policy shall not be subjected to any form of harassment, adverse employment consequences or other form of retaliation.”



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P. Jeffrey Black, a Las Vegas air marshal, said he filed 15 whistleblower complaints against the air marshal service between August 2004 and April 2007.


“For years, TSA has been telling its employees there is a zero-tolerance policy against whistleblower retaliation, but for the past four years, I have received nonstop retaliation for my whistleblower disclosures,” Black said.


Black said things got so bad at one point that he was ordered by his superiors to paint walls and have cars washed at the agency’s local field office.


Last month, Black, who is president of the Nevada chapter of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, met with Reid on Capitol Hill to discuss whistleblower protection legislation.


Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a Washington-based advocacy group, said the Review-Journal story about the air marshal service “demonstrates that whistleblower protections don’t really exist for federal employees.”


That’s why POGO and more than 100 other groups are urging Congress to finalize new laws that would add teeth to the 1994 Whistleblower Protection Act.


The House and Senate have been trying to resolve differences in separate bipartisan bills that each chamber overwhelmingly passed last year. The goal is to come up with a compromise bill that could be voted on before Congress adjourns this fall.


Advocates of the legislation say the House bill has elements lacking in the Senate version, including the guarantee of a jury trial for whistleblowers and whistleblower protections for FBI and intelligence employees.


Federal employees who appeal dismissals by claiming whistleblower protection have their cases heard by the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, a quasi-judicial agency that critics say lacks the resources to appropriately rule on often complex matters.


Very few rulings in recent years have gone in favor of whistleblowers at any federal agency, according to Rep. Todd Platts, a Pennsylvania Republican who co-sponsored the House whistleblower protection bill.


“Unfortunately, we are once again largely back to where we started,” Platts said on the House floor last year. “Since the 1994 amendments, 177 whistleblower cases have come before the federal circuit court; however, only two whistle-blowers have prevailed.”


Tom Devine, legal director of the Government Accountability Project, a Washington-based government watchdog group, said no agency better illustrates the need for stronger whistleblower protections than the Federal Air Marshal Service.


He called the agency’s management “a lowest common denominator in bureaucratic incompetence.”


“Hopefully, the House and Senate will roll up their sleeves and iron out their differences to get a final bill,” Devine said.


As Senate majority leader, Reid will play a key role in determining the fate of the legislation.


Reid said he is committed to seeing it pass.


“I will determine when to bring this important legislation before the Senate, in consultation with Senate sponsors of the legislation and leading whistleblower advocates,” he said.


President Bush has vowed to veto the bill.


A statement of Bush administration policy from March 2007 said the House bill “could compromise national security, is unconstitutional, and is overly burdensome and unnecessary.”


It takes a two-thirds vote of both houses to override a presidential veto.


The House whistleblower bill passed last year by a vote of 331-94 with Nevada’s three representatives all voting in favor of it. The Senate bill passed unanimously.


Former air marshals who filed whistleblower complaints are keeping a close eye on what Congress does.


Robert MacLean was fired from the air marshal service’s Las Vegas office for going public in 2003 about TSA plans to temporarily remove agents from cross-country and international flights. He said the American public deserves to know when the government makes bad decisions.


Following MacLean’s disclosure, the plan to cut back on air marshal assignments was scrapped. But MacLean was later fired for revealing what the government deemed to be sensitive security information. He is appealing his dismissal with the Merit Systems Protection Board.


“I believe I did the right thing,” he said. “But until the laws are improved and there are more protections for whistleblowers, everybody will be afraid to step forward.”


Contact reporter Alan Maimon at:   or   702-383-0404.




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