Faced with a Department of Justice investigation into the men and women charged with protecting U.S. commercial flights from terrorism, former and current air marshals are coming forward to describe a “wheels-up, rings-off” culture rife with adultery, prostitution and other misconduct.

The tone, they say, was set at the top. Former air marshals who worked in the service’s Orlando, Florida, field office say managers directed subordinates to modify assignments for the bosses’ benefit. That included supervisors jumping on flights or bumping air marshals off missions so they could play golf in Scotland, travel to exotic locations or meet a lover.

Around the country, others tell similar stories. They say managers flew around the globe at little personal expense and even padded their paychecks, under the guise of so-called check rides to monitor air marshals’ job performance.

“If there was a convention at the hotel, they’d go to the convention. … Next thing you know, they’d have women in their rooms.” — Jay Lacson, former air marshal

Reveal disclosed late last month that an investigation into misconduct may involve dozens of employees of the Federal Air Marshal Service and manipulation of marshals’ flight schedules for personal gain. The report sparked a House oversight committee investigation. The Senate homeland security committee has begun a preliminary inquiry as well, the committee’s chairman, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said in a written statement.

In a Senate commerce subcommittee hearing last week about oversight of the Transportation Security Administration and its 2016 budget request, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., also raised questions about the misconduct. Acting TSA Administrator Melvin Carraway declined to speak about the ongoing investigation but he said there has been an overhaul of the air marshal service.

The internal inquiry-turned-criminal investigation appears to revolve around the service’s Herndon, Virginia, dispatch center and a flight schedule coordinator accused of offering to help snag better assignments in exchange for personal or sexual favors.

Whether the air marshals under scrutiny had their schedules changed or simply knew about the practice is unclear. But Edmund “Kip” Hawley, a former TSA administrator, saw little distinction between actively participating and knowing about it but failing to report it.

“We’re talking about the sharp end of the spear of what that organization exists to do,” Hawley said. “Having knowledge of it and letting it go – there’s not much difference to me between that and participating in it directly.”

Insiders say a permissive culture that also punishes and intimidates whistleblowers has enabled such misbehavior for years. They say it leaves the service vulnerable to security risks, including situations that could unveil air marshals’ identities and put them in harm’s way.

In one recent case, an air marshal lost his badge after inviting a woman he had met at a bar to his hotel room in Portland, Oregon, said Sonya Hightower, a retired air marshal and representative of the Air Marshal Association. The air marshal discovered his badge was missing after the woman had left.

 “Of course it makes them vulnerable,” said David Major, a retired FBI agent who spent most of his counterintelligence career ferreting out spies. “They may reveal something they shouldn’t – unwittingly – when they take out their badge and gun and put it down. The business of espionage is getting access to people and finding someone who will help you, whether wittingly or not.”

Even something as simple as supervisors bumping regularly flying air marshals off flights diminishes security, some said, because managers don’t frequently train with the employees they supervise, and when they do, the training regimen or frequency may be less rigorous. Air marshals compare placing such supervisors on a mission to pulling a desk sergeant out of a police station to lead a SWAT team.

“It’s a travel agent service. Wouldn’t it be nice to pull someone out of their seat and fly for free?” said Donna Leuck, who retired from the service in March 2014 after 12 years as an air marshal based in Orlando. “They were doing all of these things and covering it up. But then they preach the culture of accountability to us. It’s a double standard.”

Leuck said one now-retired supervisor took her place on a flight in 2007 to attend his child’s college graduation near Washington, D.C. Another instructed the office’s top operations officer to remove air marshals from flights on several occasions, she said, so he could visit his mistress, who also worked for the air marshals. Both were married to other people, said Leuck, who has a pending discrimination complaint against the service. The retired supervisor denied the allegation but declined to comment on the record. The other former supervisor did not respond to emails requesting comment.

Joseph Zappa, who retired from the air marshals’ Las Vegas office last year, said a supervisor took multiple trips to Hawaii during a time when he was considering retiring there. The retired supervisor declined to comment.

Supervisors also went on check rides to take advantage of “per diem” payments, Zappa said, which was a common way regularly flying air marshals pocketed an extra $6,000 to $7,000 annually – tax-free.

“Some guys would pack tuna fish and ramen noodles and not spend per diem money” on food, he said.

“They really didn’t have a clue what they were doing as far as transferring this expertise to protecting the aviation industry.” — Matthew Issman, retired federal agent

Current and former air marshals point to a leadership top-heavy with retirees from other federal law enforcement agencies. They called some of them “chair marshals” – checked-out, deskbound bosses who meted out punishment if subordinates dared speak out. Former U.S. Secret Service agents brought in to lead the agency, some said, were the worst culprits.

The Secret Service agents “were very good at their prior mission: protecting the president. They really didn’t have a clue what they were doing as far as transferring this expertise to protecting the aviation industry,” said Matthew Issman, a retired federal agent who helped organize an internal affairs complaint processing system and had oversight responsibility for the air marshals from 2003 to 2005.

Responsibility for the cultural problems doesn’t lie solely with managers, others said. Nor are all of the allegations new. Instead, they portray an agency beset with persistent problems, despite a decade of media reports that have brought attention to the agency’s woes, congressional scrutiny and watchdog oversight reviews.

The TSA declined an interview request for this story. But former top officials say the service made strides in improving the workplace culture and did not tolerate misconduct or retaliation against those who raised concerns.

“Any organization, particularly one of this size, has, unfortunately, a few bad actors in the mix,” said Margaret Coggins, who retired in 2012 after 10 years as the air marshals’ deputy assistant director for workforce programs, following a career in the Secret Service. “It would be a mistake to characterize this as systemic or cultural or indicative of the Federal Air Marshal Service.”

Coggins said the agency’s leadership strongly encouraged employees to raise concerns, which were acted upon at the highest levels of the organization. A few outspoken employees, she added, do not constitute a mainstream point of view.

Robert Bray, director of the air marshals until his retirement last year and a former Secret Service agent, said he did not sense any tension between longtime air marshals and former Secret Service agents who had joined the agency.

He said he took pride in the amount of engagement he had with air marshals, listening to and assuring them that they were cared for by leadership. His message, he said, was clear: Air marshals must remain focused on the mission so they are ready to respond – always.

“We have to have greater perseverance than the terrorists,” said Bray, who left the agency amid a gun-buying controversy. “We have to stay mentally and physically focused to meet the challenge, wherever it is.”

With few bad guys to chase, however, insiders say many air marshals have ended up chasing lovers instead. In the eyes of some air marshals, it turned the service not just into a travel agency, but a giant flying fraternity party.

“When you hire a bunch of eager beavers, give them some of the best training money can buy, tell them that they’re heroes and then they fly hundreds of uneventful missions without making any arrests … they’re going to seek conquests elsewhere,” said Robert MacLean, a former air marshal and the most prominent of a cadre of agency whistleblowers.

 Persistent problems

The cultural issues within the air marshal service date back to soon after 9/11, when the ranks swelled from dozens to thousands.

Issman said a number of factors contributed to the problems that persist today. He blamed poor planning, including the confluence of weak leadership, the rush to expand the service without sufficient vetting and a culture clash among new hires from different law enforcement and military backgrounds.

Issman, who worked for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement internal affairs component when the air marshals briefly were part of that agency, singled out Thomas Quinn, another former Secret Service agent, who became director of the air marshals months after 9/11 and served until early 2006, when he returned to the private sector.

Quinn, he said, resisted outside oversight, bristled at the adoption of a new mission and responsibilities and maintained an outdated approach to homeland security. That included Quinn’s view that air marshals dress in business suits, even on flights to and from tropical and warm destinations, which made them easily identifiable.

“The problem with this agency is that the air marshals have no real job to do. … They sleep in five-star hotels and run wild like college kids on spring break once they get off duty overseas.” — Jay Lacson, former air marshal

In an interview, Quinn defended his tenure with the air marshals, saying there wasn’t a real agency before 9/11 and his return to public service from the private sector. At the start, with a tight deadline to meet security demands, the service was selecting, hiring, training and deploying more than 800 air marshals a month without a solid leadership or management structure yet in place. He turned to other law enforcement organizations, he said, to recruit their top retired ranks.

“In short order, we became the most seasoned, senior leadership in federal law enforcement,” he said. “I didn’t put up with any nonsense. This was not a retirement job.”

Quinn said most air marshals subscribe to a culture of the quiet professional – unseen, unheard, unafraid and dedicated to serve the mission and the American public. But, he added, “unfortunately, a lot of the good ones left because they got tired of having to deal with all of this B.S.”

Soon, many air marshals did leave the service, sometimes returning to the law enforcement agencies they had left. Others were weeded out because of misconduct, some of it criminal, including drug trafficking and sexual abuse of a minor.

“We’re talking about the sharp end of the spear of what that organization exists to do.” — Edmund “Kip” Hawley, former TSA administrator

Whistleblowers began to crop up across the country. MacLean was among them. He recently prevailed in a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found that he had violated regulations but not the law when he disclosed to a reporter that the service was, in his mind, putting security at risk by cutting costs.

Others in Las Vegas, Orlando, Cincinnati and elsewhere came forward, filing lawsuits, writing letters to Congress or talking to reporters. Like MacLean, many say their managers retaliated against them.

“I was in high-level meetings where they said, ‘All these air marshals who rat on us are all insurgents. We’re going to fire them. The whistleblowers will be terminated,’ ” said Henry Preston, an air marshal and training instructor in Orlando who retired in 2013 after more than a decade with the service. “They called flying (air marshals) insurgents – the enemy – because they didn’t want their little country club exposed in any way.”

The service also responded by labeling many materials related to the job as “sensitive security information,” no matter how innocuous or mundane, Preston and others said, the public disclosure of which resulted in punishment.

In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, the Office of Special Counsel – the federal agency that represents government whistleblowers – received at least three complaints from employees of the air marshal service who claimed they had faced retaliation, spokesman Nick Schwellenbach said.

Jay Lacson was fired from his job as an air marshal based in Miami in 2011, a year after disclosing on a job forum website that the service planned to hire 1,000 air marshals. The service keeps the size of its semicovert ranks a closely held secret for security reasons, but Lacson said he had no special knowledge; his online post was just a guess. He has challenged his dismissal.

Air marshals’ exploits

While the secretive agency clamped down on those who called attention to internal woes or secrets, Lacson said other air marshals kept their cover in off hours and covered for each other’s transgressions while on the road.

Some air marshals had it down to an art, he said, using cover stories “not just for the job, but to get laid.”

“Some would (pretend to) be a pediatrician. Or, if there was a convention at the hotel, they’d go to the convention, see what it was about and use that as their cover story,” he said. “Next thing you know, they’d have women in their rooms.”

Eric Nix, a former air marshal from Orlando, said he knew of colleagues who feigned illness to stay in cities and spend more time with women they had met. Because air marshals fly in pairs, this left their partners grounded. Nix recalled that on one mission to Boston, his partner stacked three consecutive dates – at 7, 9 and 11 p.m. – then called in sick the next day.

“Unfortunately, a lot of the good ones left because they got tired of having to deal with all of this B.S.” — Thomas Quinn, former director of the Federal Air Marshal Service

“They’d get an extra day in Los Angeles or wherever we were to spend with somebody while I’m in the hotel twiddling my thumbs,” he said. “Everyone had that happen to them. I guarantee it.”

The party atmosphere went beyond drinking and having numerous lovers around the country, Lacson and others say. Lacson said he knew air marshals on international missions who purchased steroids, testosterone, Viagra and other pharmaceutical drugs without prescriptions and brought them back into the United States.

Current and former air marshals also describe co-workers routinely hiring prostitutes while on layovers – an act similar to what caused a 2012 scandal within the Secret Service.

“I remember my first South America trip like it was yesterday,” Lacson recalled. “The team and I had just left the airport, and the team leader says, ‘I don’t know what you guys like to do, but when I come to Rio (de Janeiro), I like to (have sex) and get drunk, so I am going to get a prostitute if you guys are interested.’ ”

Clay Biles, a former air marshal who wrote a book titled “Unsecure Skies” about his experience in the agency, told Reveal that he’d seen air marshals solicit prostitutes in Vietnam, Hong Kong, South Korea and Germany and that he met a prostitute himself when he was with the agency. He blamed frustration with the job.

“That’s what it’s become: ‘Where are we going drinking tonight, and how many hookers are we picking up?’ ” he said. “The majority of the people I flew with, the men that are married and have families, they go out and they pick up prostitutes overseas. It’s a way to kill time.”

Shane Sidebottom, an attorney in Kentucky who has represented air marshals in disputes with the service, recalled his clients telling him that they knew some who used flight missions as an opportunity to do things in foreign countries that are widely forbidden or illegal in the United States, including hiring prostitutes.

“Amsterdam had been mentioned as a popular destination for air marshals” for that reason, Sidebottom said.

When he first signed up to be an air marshal, Lacson said he thought the job was going to be “cloak and dagger, saving lives.” Instead, he flew for nine years and was bored.

“The problem with this agency is that the air marshals have no real job to do. There has never been a hijacking or any real aviation threat since the inception of the agency,” he said. “So you have thousands of air marshals flying around on the taxpayers’ dime, gallivanting all over the world. They sleep in five-star hotels and run wild like college kids on spring break once they get off duty overseas.”

This story was edited by Amy Pyle and copy edited by Nikki Frick.

Andrew Becker can be reached at abecker@revealnews.org. Follow him on Twitter: @ABeckerCIR.

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Andrew Becker is a reporter for Reveal, covering border, national and homeland security issues, as well as weapons and gun trafficking. He has focused on waste, fraud and abuse – with stories ranging from border corruption to the expanding use of drones and unmanned aerial vehicles, from the militarization of police to the intersection of politics and policy related to immigration, from terrorism to drug trafficking. Becker's reporting has appeared in The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Newsweek/The Daily Beast and on National Public Radio and PBS/FRONTLINE, among others. He received a master's degree in journalism from UC Berkeley. Becker is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.