The Transportation Security Administration announced on Friday, October 19, 2012 plans to fire 25 TSA screeners and impose 2-week suspensions without pay on 19 other workers at Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR), as reported on that date by CBS News, ABC News, The Boston Globe, and other press sources.
The 44 government employees have announced through their union, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), that they will appeal the efforts to remove or suspend them. According to Stacy Dorfman, regional vice president of AFGE, "The charges right now seem to be improper screening of bags, which we don’t feel is correct. We feel they performed their jobs to what they were trained to do.”
The dismissals and suspensions follow a 36-page detailed report by the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General on security breaches at U.S. airports that was released on May 3, 2012. The report, which focuses on security oversights at EWR, contains a number of redacted or blacked out sections, apparently hidden to protect national security interests.
Six specific failures were listed among the dereliction of duty incidents cited in the report in two-months during January and February 2011. These include (1) allowing a dead dog to be loaded on a departing flight without screening for explosives or disease; (2) failing to locate a knife in a carry on bag; (3) allowing a passenger to bypass screening by using a disability gate; (4) allowing passengers through screenings after a full body monitor malfunctioned; and other similar errors.
Although many of those who received pink slips or suspensions were captured on security cameras installed to discover thefts by TSA employees, there was no mention of such criminal misconduct in either the disciplinary actions or the Inspector General's report.
The TSA has come under heavy scrutiny recently after a series of investigative reports by ABC News journalist Brian Ross. These focused on the theft of an iPad by TSA officer Andy Ramirez at Orlando International Airport (MCO) in Florida. When confronted, agent Ramirez blamed his wife for taking the notepad computer, which was electronically tracked to his home some 30 miles from the airport. Ramirez was fired by the TSA.
The shake up at Newark Airport deals mainly with security breaches, rather than dishonesty. It is the largest firing of airport screeners since actions taken last year at Honolulu International Airport (HNL), when 48 employees were proposed for firing or suspension, also for failing to properly screen luggage.
A cloud of suspicion still hangs over the agency. The TSA has been camera shy about responding publicly to charges of widespread airport theft by government workers. According to the TSA, 381 of its officers have been fired for theft between 2003 and 2012, including 11 so far in this year.
Congressman John Mica, chair of the House Transportation Committee commented about the incident last month in Orlando, Fla., saying, "This is the tip of the iceberg. It is an outrage to the public, and actually to our aviation system."
Michael Arato, a TSA supervisor at EWR pleaded guilty in U.S. Federal District Court in February 2011 to stealing an estimated $700 a day from passengers. He justified his actions by allegedly saying, "They were all foreign travelers leaving the U.S. with our money."
Just one year later, on February 2, 2012 Alexandra Schmid, a TSA screener at JFK Airport was arrested for allegedly stealing $5,000 from a passenger's jacket that she had inspected. Her trial is still pending.
Obviously, there are problems at the TSA. Some observers see the shortfalls as caused by faulty recruitment, training, supervision, and management.
The actions taken yesterday at Newark International Airport may be a tentative step to stop criticism, but it remains to be seen if they are also a solution to other long standing issues.
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