May 8 (Bloomberg) -- The arrests of U.S. Transportation Security Administration employees on charges of accepting bribes from drug-smugglers is escalating calls from Republicans to overhaul an agency under fire for patting down young children and senior citizens.
“They’re hiring people without checking out their backgrounds,” Representative John Mica, a Florida Republican who heads the House transportation committee, said in an interview. “It’s almost every week. We’ve had another drug ring. We’ve had smuggling. We’ve had them stealing out of people’s luggage.”
Questions about how effectively the 52,000-employee TSA is screening its screeners have added to other embarrassments for the agency, including purchases of equipment that didn’t work, checkpoint confrontations between agents and members of Congress, and missing a loaded gun that got onto an American Airlines flight at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport in January.
The issues may come up in the House as soon as May 9, when the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and Mica’s panel jointly hold a fourth hearing on TSA practices.
Representative Paul Broun, a Georgia Republican, called in April for TSA Administrator John Pistole’s resignation. He asked the House Homeland Security Committee on May 1 to hold hearings to investigate TSA officers’ “misconduct, unprofessionalism and corruption.”
Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, started a petition this month to eliminate the agency, created by Congress to take over airport security after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In January, the Kentucky Republican set off a false alarm while passing through a screening machine, then refused to submit to a pat down.
The arrest April 25 of two current and two former TSA screeners at Los Angeles International Airport marked the third bribery case involving agency employees this year. Also in April, a TSA screener admitted to accepting $1,200 in bribes from drug traffickers sending the narcotic oxycodone from Florida to Connecticut through an airport in White Plains, New York.
Agency officers have also been accused of stealing iPads, cash, laptops and jewelry from baggage.
“This pattern suggests there’s something wrong in the vetting process TSA uses in hiring and screening its own people,” said Robert Poole, director of transportation studies at the Reason Foundation in Los Angeles, which advocates for free market solutions to policy issues. “It’s certainly a question Congress should be asking.”
All TSA security officers undergo thorough criminal background checks, submitting their fingerprints to the FBI and cross-checking names against terrorist watch lists, Kawika Riley, a TSA spokesman, said in an e-mail.
Applicants are supposed to be disqualified for any one of 28 criminal offenses ranging from interference with navigation to espionage, treason and felony arson. Theft and bribery felonies are on the list, as are unpaid taxes, child support arrears or $7,500 in delinquent debt.
It’s the same process airports use in vetting workers who have access to secure areas.
The TSA said in a 2008 post on its official blog that more than 200 employees had been fired for theft. Last year, taking a closer look at agency numbers, the news website New York Press concluded the number had expanded to about 500.
Since January, TSA agents have been accused of stealing iPads and smuggling travelers’ personal items out of the airport in a hidden jacket pocket. Agents were sentenced to jail terms after being convicted of stealing $40,000 from a checked bag at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.
TSA screeners typically start part-time, and wages depend on the local cost of living. A starting screener at Newark earns $15.74 an hour, while the same position in Columbus, Mississippi, pays $13.96, according to job postings.
“Wherever you combine fairly low-paid employees with temptation, whether it be drug money or expensive bottles passing through their hands, you’re going to have larceny and malfeasance,” said George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, a consumer travel website.
Some level of corruption can be expected in any agency, said former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. The TSA must keep refining its practices and upgrading working conditions for screeners, who are under extreme stress from a monotonous job and dealing with frustrated travelers, he said.
“The New York Police Department is a phenomenal police department, but from time to time you hear of cases of cops who kill somebody or take bribes from organized crime,” Chertoff said in an interview. “It doesn’t mean you throw out the police department, it just means you have to be vigilant.”
The House voted last year to cap the number of full-time TSA screeners at 46,000. The agency had 52,269 full-time equivalent positions devoted to aviation security last year, according to budget documents. The agency doesn’t specify how many of those employees are screeners. TSA Administrator John Pistole has said the agency employs about 14,000 part-time screeners.
“There’s always going to be a recurrence of embarrassing incidents,” said Stewart Verdery, a former Department of Homeland Security assistant secretary, now a lobbyist with Monument Policy Group in Washington.
“The case is a good reminder that background checks have to be ongoing,” he said in an e-mail. “There’s a reason Congress has been insisting on refreshed checks for security officials.”
Pistole, speaking at the National Press Club in March, said theft has been an issue at the security administration, other U.S. agencies and airlines, and is a security concern.
The TSA uses closed-circuit cameras in checked-baggage areas to deter theft and rebut false accusations of stealing, Pistole said. In cases where the video shows theft has occurred, the agency fires the individuals and seeks criminal prosecutions, he said.
Mica has proposed turning over the hiring and managing of airport screeners to private companies, making the TSA a smaller agency focused on determining which individuals pose risks.
Private security companies can be held to a higher standard than the government, said Stephen Amitay, federal legislative counsel for the National Association of Security Companies in Washington.
Companies would face penalties or the cancellation of a contract for any criminal activity, Amitay said. TSA standards are treated as minimums that companies would exceed to employ and retain a better-performing workforce, he said.
“There’s a strong incentive for the company, its managers and screeners to make sure that everyone is abiding by the requirements of the contract,” Amitay said.
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