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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.
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.
As a punishment Miranda received a letter of admonishment. Thomas wrote that, additionally, Carter would be counseled regarding his supposedly inappropriate behavior. But Carter says he never received counseling or any other indication that he'd been found partially liable.
Despite the apparent setback, Alex Miranda's star was on the rise. Shortly after Carter's complaint, Guevara appointed Miranda acting assistant federal security director for screening, one of the top four positions at TSA Miami.
Carter's career, meanwhile, was headed in the opposite direction. On April 23, 2003, he received his first reprimand -- a "general counseling form" chastising him for not informing management of a dangerous situation at one of his screening stations, and maintaining inappropriate professional contact with screeners at a station he no longer supervised, which undermined the authority of the new manager. In July he received another reprimand, this one for his "lack of approachability" and "intimidating style" with his subordinates. He was also accused of spending long periods of time at Checkpoint A "rather than moving throughout your area continuously to show a presence."
In August he was censured for not being available at his Checkpoint A station to answer questions from airline workers. Asks Carter: "How can I be criticized for spending too much time at my station, and then a month later criticized for not spending enough time there?"
On August 7, 2003, the TSA fired him for "failure to meet conditions of employment."
Carter found a lawyer willing to take his case, Chris Whitelock, and sued the TSA in federal court for retaliating against him because he complained about sexual harassment.
In June 2004, TSA Miami's new director, Richard Thomas, a former army intelligence officer who took over when Guevara left, made permanent Miranda's acting appointment as assistant director in charge of screening.
Things at the TSA took a dramatic turn a few weeks ago when attorney Whitelock made it known he intended to take sworn depositions from two TSA screening supervisors, Rosie Martinez and Rebecca Moore. Prior to the employees' testimony, scheduled for November 30, TSA officials asked them what they would say. Both women explained they would testify to numerous incidents in which Miranda made inappropriate sexual comments and lewd gestures. Two instances involved Miranda allegedly grabbing the breasts of female subordinates. Martinez said she never came forward with this information because she feared reprisal.
As a result of the women's remarks, Thomas suspended Miranda without pay on November 24. It was only the beginning.
In early December another manager was suspended. "As part of our continuing investigation into allegations of unprofessional behavior, we have uncovered other allegations of sexual harassment," explains the TSA's Stover. "Those employees have been put on administrative leave with pay while the matter is looked into."
Although Stover didn't name the employees, others have identified them as screening manager Paul Diener and screening supervisor William Morrison. The timing couldn't have been worse for TSA's Miami management. As a result of anonymous complaints, OIG agents from the Department of Homeland Security had been interviewing TSA employees throughout the fall regarding Jay Rogers, the assistant federal security director in charge of law enforcement. The agents were asking employees about incidents in which Rogers allegedly violated security procedures.
According to two TSA employees interviewed by the OIG, the investigators are looking into sixteen instances in which Rogers may have abused his position. One involved a vacation he took this past July. While waiting to board a plane, Rogers allegedly used a law enforcement badge to gain access to a secure door leading to the loading-ramp area, where he retrieved something from his luggage, according to the sources. Several screeners objected to this and wrote a memo to their supervisor, Tracy King, who filed her own report on the incident and delivered it to Richard Thomas. Nothing came of it.
Agents are also trying to determine whether Rogers asked Customs inspectors to give him and his wife, who is not a U.S. citizen, special treatment upon their return from that vacation. A July 14 Customs e-mail titled "Passengers J. Rogers & Louise Rogers, Head of TSA Miami" instructs Customs officials to "not interfere with inspection and escort both passengers to pick up luggage and expedite passengers out."
Another allegation has Rogers ordering TSA inspector Tony Tranumn to escort two furniture delivery trucks, which had not been cleared through security, onto the airport's tarmac to deliver items to the TSA offices in terminal A. Tranumn reported this infraction to Thomas, according to sources, but there is no indication Thomas responded.
(Citing the ongoing investigations and Carter's lawsuit, Rogers and Thomas declined comment.)
The accusations may seem petty, but a number of TSA employees argue they are anything but petty. They go to the heart of the TSA mandate: to ensure that security procedures are consistently followed. When the top managers flout those procedures, other employees are left confused and demoralized -- not to mention the possibility that security at MIA may have been seriously compromised by the very people meant to oversee its safety. But what especially upsets many employees is that when they report incidents to their superiors, nothing seems to happen. Or if it does, it takes the form of retribution.
Alex Carter wholeheartedly concurs.