Three employees of the Transportation Security Administration testified before Congress about the agency’s management, sharing personal anecdotes of abuse and harassment from senior executives that they say have created a hostile, oppressive culture.
“Our corporate culture is analogous to the movie Animal House, while the relationship between our headquarters and the field is best depicted in the TV series Game of Thrones,” said Andrew Rhoades, assistant federal security director in the Office of Security Operations at TSA.
The three whistleblowers appeared before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform April 27. Their stories confirmed concerns lawmakers have been harboring about the agency.
Rhoades described an incident in which a senior executive accused him of “going native” due to an outreach program to Somali communities and mosques in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. He also said he was specifically directed, in his midyear report, to profile members of the Somali community.
Rhodes said he was regularly cut out of conversations when he objected to waste or fraud in various programs. For example, he said TSA spent $300,000 for an office in Minneapolis for a regional manager that had no intention of leaving Michigan. The agency is now spending even more money to convert the building to another purpose. When Rhoades originally raised objections, he was ignored and excluded.
“Ours is a culture of misconduct, retaliation, lack of trust, cover-ups and the refusal to hold its senior leaders accountable for poor judgement and malfeasance,” Rhoades said.
Mark Livingston, program manager in the Office of the Chief Risk Officer, said he was subject to more hostile responses.
“I call it the Lord of the Flies; you either attack or be attacked,” he said.
Livingston, a former Marine, said he was regularly harassed for his service-related disabilities. Later, when he reported one senior executive for preselection and another for sexual harassment, he was removed from his position and demoted despite consistently high rankings on evaluations. After an investigation carried out while he was on probation cleared him of any charges, TSA executives still did not reinstate him.
“No one who reports issues is safe at TSA,” he said.
In addition, Livingston said that all cases at TSA end in non-disclosure agreements to keep employees from discussing incidents in detail with anyone outside the agency’s executives.
Livingston said TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger is “well intentioned,” but that any reforms he tries to make to the agency to improve either function or morale are undermined by the leaders who abuse their powers.
“If you have toxic, cancerous leaders injected into this process, it undoes all the work the good leaders are trying to do,” he said.
Livingston said that dysfunction in the agency is endangering the security of travelers, the economy and the American transportation system as a whole. For example, he said that the Office of Intelligence and Analysis is being run by individuals with no intelligence experience whatsoever.
Jay Brainard, a federal security director from TSA’s Office of Security Operations, said that these executives surround themselves with like-minded individuals, promoting employees from a loyalty list rather than based on merit and performance. He said that others are harassed and punished.
“Subordinates follow these positional leaders out of fear, whose only objectives are limited to bean counting and instilling fear into anyone who opposes them,” Brainard said. “These leaders are some of the biggest bullies in government and as a result many people feel battered, abused, and overworked.”
Brainard said that as a security director in the Midwest he consistently received top rankings, as well as one of two top awards within the agency, only to be transferred suddenly to Maine and put in charge of a smaller, less complex airport with less traffic and fewer employees. He said that he was given no explanation for the transfer, and that he was not filling a vacant position, but displacing another employee.
“Not one person responsible for the state of our agency is glad to see any one of us here today,” he said. “Those who have spoken up have been and continue to be targeted and victimized, with the goal of running them out of federal service. Under the previous administration complaints were buried and in many cases so were the complainers.”
During and after the testimony, lawmakers’ reactions were severe.
“I’m pretty disgusted, and I’m looking forward to having another hearing … I want to get to the bottom of this,” Rep. John Carter (R-Texas) said.
“I think you’ve confirmed some of our worst suspicions,” Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) said.
Before they left, the whistleblowers advised lawmakers on the direction of future inquiries. Rhoades suggested an external audit of the agency, especially focused on hiring and awards. Livingston singled out the Executive Resources Council.
“That’s the nucleus for everything,” he said.
A memo sent by TSA’s Office of Human Capital on Feb. 29 sparked the congressional inquiry. The memo directed that all involuntary reassignments had to be approved by OHC first.
“It has come to the attention of agency senior officials that this consultation with OHC is not being regularly sought and may have resulted in inconsistent applications of human capital policy and procedures,” the memo read.
On March 15, committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) sent a letter to Neffenger questioning whether agency workers were wrongly given involuntary reassignments to different workplaces or retaliated against.
Daisy Thornton is Federal News Network’s digital managing editor. In addition to her editing responsibilities, she covers federal management, workforce and technology issues. She is also the commentary editor; email her your letters to the editor and pitches for contributed bylines.