Rules Are for Fools

That seems to be the motto of top officials at TSA Miami

At a strip-mall Starbucks near Miami International Airport, a government employee sits sipping a pumpkin spice latte and nervously shuffling through a sheaf of papers.

"There's a lot going on that I think you should know about," says the employee, who works for the federal Transportation Security Administration (TSA). By the time the coffee is gone, it's clear this person's confidence in the management of the TSA operation in Miami also has vanished.

But Christmas has come early for concerned and disgruntled TSA employees at Miami International Airport. The place is a hive of activity as investigators from the Department of Homeland Security and TSA's own internal-affairs department examine the entire command structure at MIA. Several managers already have been suspended.

Former TSA manager Alex Carter says he complained and paid the price
Jonathan Postal
Former TSA manager Alex Carter says he complained and paid the price

Everyone expected the TSA, which was frantically cobbled together following the 9/11 attacks, to suffer growing pains. The wave of hirings across the nation inevitably swept up some undesirables. According to a November ABC News report, more than 60 TSA employees at a dozen airports have been charged with stealing from passengers (four in Miami). Many were hired even though they had criminal backgrounds. Right now a furious debate is under way regarding a new policy that allows screeners to pat down travelers.

These unsettling developments may be the expected byproduct of creating an enormous new federal agency, but it seems the problem in Miami, where the TSA employs 1800 people, stems from something else -- a management culture that fosters cronyism, unprofessional behavior, and a contempt for accountability.

Since November 24, TSA officials have suspended the assistant director in charge of screening and two screening managers amid allegations of sexual harassment. In addition the assistant director in charge of law enforcement, Jay Rogers, is under investigation by the Department of Homeland Security's Office of the Inspector General (OIG) for at least sixteen alleged violations of TSA policies and, potentially, federal law. As a result of all of this, sources say, the TSA's own internal-affairs department recently sent two agents from Washington, D.C., to question employees about the management practices of federal security director Richard Thomas, the agency's Miami chief.

The TSA's regional spokeswoman, Lauren Stover, acknowledges the OIG investigation but declined to comment on it. Nonetheless, she says the suspensions (which are unrelated to Jay Rogers) are evidence that management is serious about holding people accountable. Critics, however, point out that these scandals were uncovered only because an ex-employee filed a retaliation lawsuit against the TSA.

Alex Carter, a six-foot three-inch, 235-pound former pro-football player and state probation officer, claims his supervisor, Alex Miranda, sexually harassed him several times, and when Carter complained about it, he was fired.

Carter joined the TSA in 2002 as a screening manager. Almost immediately, according to a complaint he filed, Miranda began making very explicit sexual advances. Carter charges that in January 2003, Miranda twice asked him about his "dick size." The decisive incident, though, occurred during a February 5, 2003, meeting of MIA screening managers. Carter says there weren't enough chairs so he ended up standing next to Miranda, who began taunting him. First Miranda dropped a piece of paper, which Carter picked up. Miranda dropped it again. Recalls Carter: "I remember thinking, öYou need to throw this away if you can't hang on to it.'"

Then, according to the complaint Carter sent to the local TSA director: "With no provocation, Mr. Miranda touched my buttock with his hand. There was no way the touch was accidental. I turned to look at him and he was smiling. A few minutes later Mr. Miranda touched me again, this time on the rear of my upper leg. He was smiling again."

Carter's assertions are bolstered by something most sexual harassment complaints lack: documentation. Following the alleged fondling, Miranda passed a note to another manager at the meeting, a message he clearly meant for Carter to see. It read, "He must have a big dick -- and a sweaty asshole. Tits are hard." (Carter grabbed the note.)

On March 13, Carter wrote a letter to Ed Guevara, the top man at TSA Miami, in which he recounted what happened at the meeting, as well as other episodes of alleged harassment. "This is to register a formal complaint of harassment of a sexual nature against my immediate supervisor, Alex Miranda," Carter stated. "Mr. Miranda is the TSA/MIA lead manager to whom I report." Carter included a copy of the offending note.

Guevara, who would resign in July 2003 amid criticism of his own management style, assigned his deputy security director to investigate. The deputy was Richard Thomas, who completed his probe on April 7. In a disciplinary note to Miranda, Thomas wrote, "The inquiry revealed that you made comments of a sexual nature, wrote an inappropriate note containing sexually explicit comments, and made inappropriate physical contact with Mr. Carter. The inquiry also revealed mutual joking by Mr. Carter, and that Mr. Carter appeared to consent to the statements and/or actions at the time of the incidents at issue."

Carter vehemently denies there was any mutual joking going on. "They said this was like locker-room banter," he fumes. "I've been in a lot of locker rooms and no one acts like this." Thomas's memo did not address the fact that Miranda was Carter's supervisor, much less that Carter himself initiated the complaint.

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