Thirty-six Transportation Security Administration workers at Honolulu Airport, including the top director, were given termination notices Friday, and 12 others were suspended in the largest mass disciplinary action in the federal agency’s history.
The workers were removed from their jobs because they allegedly were not screening checked-in baggage for explosives, a requirement of their positions.
But the screening gaps that were uncovered during a six-month TSA investigation affected only one shift responsible for a single airport lobby and did not lead to any security incidents, agency spokesman Nico Melendez said.
"The fact is they weren’t doing their job, they weren’t following procedures and they were screening bags improperly, and that’s a serious violation when you have the public trust as a cornerstone of their agency," Melendez said. "They violated that and they are being held accountable."
Representatives for two unions vying to become the exclusive bargaining agent for TSA front-line workers nationally faulted management for the problems, saying workers were pressured to increase the pace of screenings because of airline complaints about backlogs.
"We’re going to fight this," Al Baang, chief Honolulu steward for the American Federation of Government Employees, one of the two unions, said of the disciplinary action.
While the unions scrambled to deal with Friday’s development, airport operations were unaffected, an airport spokesman said. And airline passengers questioned by the Star-Advertiser about what was happening seemed unfazed as they stood in line at a checkpoint.
"We’re glad that they’re checking on those guys because we depend on them to make sure everything is safe," said Bryn Kawaakoa, who was catching a flight back to California after a visit here.
"I don’t necessarily like (standing in line), but I do understand it," said William Becknell of Dallas. If anything, he added, TSA should consider hiring more screeners "to speed things up a little bit."
AT A GLANCE
THE 36 EMPLOYEES who received "proposed termination" letters included five members of TSA’s leadership team. All 36 were placed on paid administrative leave pending possible appeals.
The suspended workers were put on unpaid leave, with suspensions ranging from two weeks to 30 days. They also have an opportunity to appeal.
Among the five managers who received termination notices were Glen Kajiyama, TSA’s federal security director, and William Gulledge, assistant federal deputy director for screening.
Kajiyama, who served as a deputy chief at the Honolulu Police Department during a 30-year career, was named in July 2007 to replace Sidney Hayakawa as head of TSA’s local operations. Gulledge, who joined TSA in 2003, was a former major with HPD. Neither could be reached for comment.
The TSA investigation revealed some bags weren’t checked properly by one shift of screeners at Lobby 4, officials said.
"For the better part of a few months at the end of 2010, some of our security officers who were charged with a specific function weren’t completing that function completely," Melendez said.
He indicated that the improper processing represented only a small portion of the baggage that passes through the airport’s checkpoints each day. Melendez said he was not aware of evidence suggesting any criminal activity and that TSA had not spoken to other federal authorities about possible criminal charges.
The 36 employees who received letters of termination had been placed in nonsecurity roles pending the outcome of the investigation, which began late last year. Melendez said that 100 of the 750 TSA employees who work in Honolulu were interviewed during the investigation.
"TSA holds its work force to the highest ethical standards, and we will not tolerate employees who in any way compromise the security of the traveling public," said TSA Administrator John Pistole. "We have taken appropriate action … and are committed to ensuring our high security standards are upheld in Hawaii and throughout the country."
BAANG, THE UNION STEWARD, said that if proper procedures weren’t followed, that was done at the behest of management.
The National Treasury Employees Union, the other union trying to become exclusive bargaining agent for 43,000 TSA workers across the country, likewise pointed the finger at leadership.
"While no one condones compromising security measures designed to keep the traveling public safe, it is NTEU’s understanding that pressure from airlines and supervisors to ensure that morning international flights departed from Honolulu on time led to the events triggering the investigation and resulting discipline," Colleen M. Kelley, the union’s president, said in a statement.
Kelley said the situation in Honolulu was "a matter of considerable concern but should not be taken as indicative of the behavior and professionalism of the vast majority of TSA officers. In fact, it was TSA employees that brought these problems forward."
Kawika Riley, a TSA spokesman in Washington, D.C., described the Honolulu action as "the largest number of employees proposed to be terminated for misconduct" in the agency’s history. He could not say what the previous record was.
Since reports of improper screening first surfaced, the airport has been using an automated system to ensure all bags are being processed properly, Melendez said. "But we also continue to use our internal sources, like covert tests, to ensure that all bags are screened not only at this airport, but at every airport in the country," he said.
Because of privacy laws, Melendez said he was prevented from naming the people targeted for firings. But he did describe the top management positions affected, which indirectly disclosed the proposed terminations of Kajiyama and Gulledge.
Those facing firings have seven days to respond to their letters. If the TSA goes through with the terminations, the workers have 30 days to appeal.
Attorney David Borer, general counsel for the AFGE in Washington, D.C., said he is sending one or two lawyers to Hawaii to assist the affected workers.
Borer said employees who were interviewed during the investigation were told little about its focus and were instructed not to talk about it. "The whole thing was pretty mysterious from the start," he said.
THE ALLEGATIONS FIRST surfaced in December when two TSA employees reported that luggage was allowed to go on flights without being screened or checked for explosives at Lobby 4.
Most of the flights where bags were not screened took off in the morning. Lobby 4 is used by Air Canada, Air New Zealand, Air Pacific, Alaska Air, All Nippon Airways, China Airlines, Delta Airlines, Jetstar Airways, Korean Air, Philippine Airlines, Qantas and WestJet.
Paul McElroy, a spokesman for Alaska Air, said his airline had no issues with TSA’s processing of baggage.
Melendez said transportation security officers are required to operate explosive detection and explosive-trace detection systems. The job requires operation of machines, as well as checking bags by hand.
Temporary replacements for the 48 affected employees began working Friday. The process of hiring permanent replacements will begin "in the coming weeks," Melendez said. "But we need to go through due process, and the appeals process, for these people who are being proposed for removal. That process takes time, and when it’s complete we’ll begin hiring."
Stanford Miyamoto, who serves as TSA’s deputy area director, was named acting federal security director Friday, replacing Kajiyama.
This is not the first time that TSA workers in Hawaii have come under scrutiny.
In April, Dawn Nikole Keka, a lead TSA officer at Kona Airport, pleaded guilty in federal court to misdemeanor theft charges of stealing cash from Japanese travelers passing through her screening lane. She will be sentenced in July.
Keka was caught in a sting operation when a TSA special agent posing as a Japanese tourist went through Keka’s lane with 13 marked $100 bills in a wallet in a Hello Kitty backpack.
After the publicity of Keka’s arrest in March, other travelers and even some of Keka’s former co-workers stepped forward with more theft accusations. One man claimed he lost $9,000.
The TSA conducted the sting and arrested Keka on March 11. She resigned the following Monday. She said she took two $100 bills from the undercover agent’s backpack while searching it for contraband.