The Mouth Of `Maximum Mary'

A watchdog talks straight on air safety-and takes heat

Mary Schiavo has never been one to pull her punches. The 40-year-old Inspector General for the Transportation Dept. proudly displays a wooden carving on her desk that reads "Maximum Mary." It's a gift from her days as a federal prosecutor in Kansas City. "I always asked for the maximum sentence," she explains.

A. Mary Fackler Schiavo (the first initial stands for "America") shows no signs of mellowing. As the top watchdog at one of the government's biggest departments, she has brought a prosecutor's zeal to her job by spearheading criminal investigations into the sale of unapproved parts for use in airliners. Her office is now one of several government organizations probing whether any criminal activity contributed to the crash of a ValuJet Airlines Inc. plane in Florida.

Schiavo's headline-grabbing style, however, rankles many. For instance, she has said publicly she would avoid flying ValuJet, even after Transportation Secretary Fredrico Pena declared the airline safe. No matter, says Schiavo. "Many people would prefer we wear green eyeshades and count beans," she says dismissively. "But they're wrong."

PILOT'S LICENSE. Schiavo has always been a bit unconventional. Growing up on a farm near Pioneer, Ohio (population 1,900), Schiavo made money as a teenage ventriloquist. Earning a private pilot's license by the age of 18, she went on to Harvard University and later earned a law degree from New York University. After a stint as a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's office in Kansas City, Mo., she came to Washington. President Bush named her to the Transportation post in 1990.

Schiavo's approach is certainly a break with the past. IGs typically ferret out contracting irregularities or agency mismanagement. But Schiavo has also delved deeply into airline safety issues. Her assault on the use of uncertified and counterfeit parts in airliners has stirred up the most controversy. Working with prosecutors and government investigators around the country, Schiavo's office has helped win about 120 convictions since her appointment, despite some initial industry skepticism that a serious problem existed. "We suddenly found ourselves an ally on this," says James M. Frisbee, a consultant and former head of quality assurance for Northwest Airlines Inc.

But Schiavo's crusade against bogus parts also irritates critics, who charge that because she isn't a trained safety expert, she's not qualified to judge the FAA's safety record. Grouses James K. Coyne, president of the National Air Transportation Assn., which represents aviation-service companies: "She is widely considered to be a media maven who relishes her moments in the spotlight. But she's unwilling to listen to people with more substantive experience in aviation safety than she has." Schiavo has also sparred with FAA officials. One official, Anthony J. Broderick, associate administrator for regulation and certification, has argued that unapproved parts do not pose a widespread safety threat to the public.

WARRANTED? Another detractor is Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). After a column Schiavo wrote for Newsweek outlining her reservations about flying commuter airlines and describing what she called "gaps" in safety oversight, Stevens declared that Schiavo is "destroying confidence" in the U.S. flight safety system. Now, he is launching his own probe into whether Schiavo's charges are warranted.

Schiavo insists she has no regrets. "If you can't [create change], you aren't accomplishing much," she says. One thing on which admirers and critics agree: There's no silencing Maximum Mary.

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