The Transportation Security Administration, the new agency charged with safeguarding the nation’s air travel, has stripped a deputy director and two other officials of their jobs due to allegations of “improper conduct,” MSNBC.com has learned. An agency spokesman confirmed that the officials had been suspended and demoted but would not discuss details of the allegations against them.
THE SHAKE-UP comes as the TSA, created in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, has struggled to meet demands from Congress and the public to put air marshals on as many commercial flights as possible.
The officials were suspended and removed from supervisory positions after the TSA investigated and confirmed allegations of “improper activities” that occurred nearly a decade ago but just came to light, the agency told MSNBC.com
The agency would not identify the employees, but a TSA source who spoke on condition of anonymity said two of them were TSA deputy director Greg McLaughlin and Robert LaChance, head of the air marshal regional office in Orlando, Fla.
The source said McLaughlin and LaChance had recently received two-week suspensions and had been barred from holding supervisory positions within the air marshal program.
The name of the third official involved in the disciplinary action remains unknown.
Efforts to contact McLaughlin and LaChance were unsuccessful. Calls to the men themselves and their supervisors were not returned.
TSA Spokesman Brian Doyle wouldn’t comment on the nature of the activities that lead to the disciplinary action “because this is a personnel action and there are some privacy issues involved.”
However, the “improper activities” engaged in by the three officials did not involve security issues, Doyle said.
“When brought to the attention of TSA leadership, the activity was immediately investigated and appropriate action was taken,” Doyle said.
He refused to comment on why the three officials were being stripped of their supervisory positions but allowed to still work at other jobs within the air marshal program.
A VETERAN MARSHAL
McLaughlin had been one of the small number of air marshals employed by the Department of Transportation in the years before the Sept. 11 attacks. Prior to the attacks, the air marshals program had an annual budget of $4 million and only 33 marshals in the air.
McLaughlin assumed the post of deputy director when the program was put into overdrive after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. The air marshal program mission was to recruit, hire and train as many as 4,000 new air marshals, according to sources familiar with the program. The actual number of air marshals is classified.
The program received $481 million in emergency funding immediately following the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Virginia.
The program’s director, Thomas Quinn, won approval for a $623 million budget for fiscal 2003.
It is unclear what roles, if any, that McLaughlin or Lachance will play in the air marshal program after their suspensions.
Although Doyle insisted that the daily mission of the air marshals wouldn’t be affected by the shake-up the program has had more than its share of turbulence in the post 9-11 era.
Morale among the rank-and-file air marshals is flagging, according to current and former air marshals, owing to a lack of leadership, clear communication from Washington and broken promises regarding career advancement. Many have bolted from the program returning to their previous jobs. TSA insists, however, that turnover is 3 percent, which the agency claims is below average for this sort of job.
The TSA has admitted to some early problems but has written those off as start-up jitters and says the program is now running smoothly.
The early hiring procedures and practices of the air marshals program are currently under investigation by the General Accounting Office and the Department of Transportation’s inspector general. The investigations are looking into the policies, procedures and practices employed by the TSA in developing the air marshals program.
Brock N. Meeks is MSNBC.com’s chief Washington correspondent.