By Brock N. Meeks Chief Washington correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 8/31/2004 1:08:53 AM ET 2004-08-31T05:08:53

The government botched background checks and was too lax in its hiring standards for federal air marshals, allowing persons with questionable employment records and histories of sexual abuse and misuse of government property to be hired, according to a report from the  Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general.

Under hiring procedures set by the Transportation Security Administration, which until last year ran the Federal Air Marshal Service, prospective applicants were given background checks similar to that of airport baggage and passenger screeners despite the fact that air marshals are allowed to carry weapons and have access to top secret classified information. 

But DHS Inspector General Clark Kent Ervin’s report found that those standards were too lax for a position of “high risk” that “demands the highest degree of public trust.”  The background checks should have been more rigorous, the report said.

“Many federal air marshals were granted access to classified information after displaying questionable judgment, irresponsibility and emotionally unstable behavior,” Ervin said in his report released Monday.

Troubled backgrounds ignored
The inspector general’s report notes that TSA investigated and approved the hiring and granting of top secret clearances to 161 applicants accused of domestic violence, drunken driving and sexual harassment.

“None of those particular applicants were hired, nor will they be,” said David Adams, a spokesman for the Federal Air Marshal Service.

In December of last year the air marshals were transferred to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement division of DHS.  As a result of that shift the hiring standards were beefed up to reflect the nature of the position.

“Our air marshal guidelines currently in place address suitable standards appropriate for law enforcement officers,” Adams said.

But others with troubled backgrounds have been hired, the report notes.  Specifically, 104 former prison guards turned air marshals were found to be involved in 155 separate cases of misconduct while on their prison jobs.  All those air marshals currently hold top secret clearances and are on active duty.

Those 155 incidents include “offenses such as falling asleep on duty, verbally abusing a female prison official, breach of security, physical abuse of an inmate, inappropriate relationship with an inmate’s wife, and misuse of government property and credit cards,” the report says, citing records from the Internal Affairs division of the Bureau of Prisons.

Background investigations during the air marshal hiring process caught only 32 percent of the above noted violations, the report says; the report notes the Bureau of Prisons said it was  contacted only once for further information regarding the incidents of misconduct.

A TSA spokesperson said that each of the cases of the 104 persons noted in the report “have been doubly adjudicated” and that the agency “stands by the adjudication process and the results of those 104 cases.”

But the officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Federal Air Marshal Service are investigating further.  “Prior to the issuance of IG report, we decided it would be a prudent thing to review all [air marshal] background checks to determine that each meets law enforcement suitability requirements,” Adams said.

Discipline in the spotlight
Ervin’s report also criticizes the air marshal service for being soft on disciplinary issues.  The report notes that air marshals were allowed to keep their jobs after committing offenses such as sleeping on duty, working while drunk or falsifying information, that would have gotten an airport passenger or baggage screener fired on the spot. 

The report notes that there are 753 documented cases of air marshals sleeping on duty, falsifying information, testing positive for drugs or alcohol while on duty and lost or stolen weapons, yet in many cases air marshals were simply placed on administrative leave for extended periods of time instead of being fired. 

In written comments to the report, DHS Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson defends the air marshal service, noting that officials of that agency have wide latitude in the disciplinary actions they take, allowing them to consider past performance, the nature and seriousness of the offense and whether it was committed maliciously or not.

“In cases where termination was appropriate, the [air marshal service] acted swiftly and decisively,” Hutchinson said, nothing that between March 2002 and March 2004 the service fired 101 air marshals and 32 others resigned before they could be officially fired.

Hutchinson also disputed the number of misconduct cases cited in Ervin’s report, claiming there were only 717 cases and that many of those were cases of “rude behavior” or tardiness.  However, Hutchinson did acknowledge the air marshals had 17 confirmed cases of lost or stolen weapons, 12 incidents of sexual harassment, 13 cases of domestic abuse and 27 cases of alcohol or drug abuse.

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