Bad behavior in the Federal Air Marshal Service and how the agency has addressed it are expected to be the focus of a House oversight committee hearing today.
The hearing, called by U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, was spurred by a Reveal story in February that exposed allegations that air marshals’ flights to protect commercial planes were changed to accommodate sexual trysts.
Chaffetz had launched a House oversight committee investigation into the sex scandal on the heels of Reveal’s story. The Senate homeland security committee also started a broader investigation into the agency.
The air marshals service, which grew from a few dozen to thousands of armed federal law enforcement personnel after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, has long been dogged by evidence of a party-hearty attitude such as hiring prostitutes and other misbehavior, including abroad.
The agency also has struggled with attrition, internal strife between the rank-and-file and management, and even concerns about high stress and suicide, much of it stemming from job-related demands and sleep deprivation. Alcohol has been a common denominator in many of those reports.
“Heaven forbid that a federal air marshal is on a flight, unable to do his or her job, and something happens,” said House oversight committee spokeswoman M.J. Henshaw, who added that Chaffetz also is concerned that the misconduct can leave air marshals vulnerable to blackmail and impaired judgment.
The latest scandal, reported Wednesday by The Intercept, involves two Chicago-based air marshals who allegedly used their government-issued phones to film a sexual encounter with a prostitute while on duty outside the U.S.
Roderick Allison, director of the Federal Air Marshal Service, and Heather Book, assistant administrator of the Transportation Security Administration’s Office of Professional Responsibility, have been called to testify before the committee today.
In prepared testimony, Allison avoided any specific mention of misconduct or other issues. He referred to the agency’s outreach programs to assist air marshals with any physical or psychological counseling needs.
“TSA sets high standards for the code of conduct for all of our employees, especially law enforcement personnel,” Allison’s prepared testimony says. “Professionalism and integrity on and off duty is expected of all Federal Air Marshals.”
Since becoming the director in June 2014, Allison has visited the agency’s 22 field offices nationwide and held “town hall” meetings to talk to air marshals about some of the internal issues.
The air marshals service, which is part of the Transportation Security Administration, is just one of several federal agencies that reportedly have engaged in behavior that has drawn criticism from lawmakers and government watchdogs.
Earlier this year, the Justice Department’s inspector general found that Drug Enforcement Administration agents had “sex parties” in Colombia with prostitutes provided by criminal organizations. The U.S. Secret Service was tainted by a similar scandal ahead of a presidential visit to the South American country in 2012.
Chaffetz hopes that the air marshals hearing might highlight lessons and approaches that other agencies can adopt to address misconduct and discipline, and serve as a kind of case study, Henshaw said.
Allison also launched an initiative to root out alcohol abuse and detect when air marshals have been drinking excessively, which Reveal reported in March. The TSA in January had awarded a $9,378 contract to a Virginia company to provide alcohol breath test equipment and training. The program, which has sought to identify air marshals who appear inebriated on the job, has been met with resistance by groups of air marshals.
Since early 2015, several air marshals have been ordered to meet with inspectors before missions for alcohol screening, according to representatives of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association. Whether any air marshals have been disciplined for being intoxicated is not public.
Jarel Kelsey, president of PAS Systems International Inc., which won the alcohol breathalyzer contract, confirmed in an interview that his company worked with and trained TSA employees on how to use the testing device. He said the equipment also is used in prisons and the U.S. military.
This story was edited by Amy Pyle and copy edited by Sheela Kamath.