With a swipe of President Obama’s pen, Don Strange could get his job back with the Federal Air Marshal Service.
The former special agent in charge of the Atlanta field office, one of the largest in the nation, was unceremoniously escorted from the building in February 2005. He was later fired, after challenging the agency’s boarding procedures, dress code and other security issues he says threatened to expose undercover officers.
George Taylor, an assistant to Mr. Strange, challenged what he called the racist treatment of two of his men by a supervisor at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. He then was demoted from management to routine air marshal duty.
His schedule was so heavy that he developed barotrauma - damage from barometric pressure - that ruptured both eardrums and caused his sinuses to collapse, according to medical documents. He was restricted from duty in September 2006 due to barotrauma, and on Oct. 23 a notice from the Labor Department said his claim for workers’ compensation had been accepted.
A coalition of government-watchdog groups now is asking the new administration to review and correct retaliation against air marshal whistleblowers who spoke out during the first few years of the Department of Homeland Security.
“We request your leadership to restore whistleblower rights and government accountability and end an era of secrecy enforced by repression,” the coalition said in a Jan. 16 letter to Mr. Obama, just days before he took office.
The groups include the Government Accountability Project, the American Federation of Government Employees, the Bill of Rights Foundation, the National Taxpayers Union, the National Whistleblower Center, the Project on Government Oversight, Public Citizen, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the Whistleblower Mentoring Project and Openthegovernment.org.
The groups are asking Mr. Obama to issue an executive order to review and restore the careers of whistleblowers “who lost their jobs because they sought to defend the public” under former Federal Air Marshals Service Director Thomas Quinn, who retired in January 2006.
In addition, these and other groups lobbied Congress last week to include whistleblower-protection language for federal employees in the stimulus package, an amendment that passed by voice vote in the House on Wednesday.
Federal Air Marshal Service spokesman Nelson Minerly says a number of changes have been made under the current director, Robert Bray, and his predecessor, Dana Brown, including listening sessions and task forces to root out internal problems and find solutions.
For example, changes have been made to the dress code, boarding procedures and scheduling to allow more down time between flights, Mr. Minerly said.
As for the executive-order request, Mr. Minerly declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation.
“We cannot comment on specific cases under review by the Merit System Protection Board, Office of Special Counsel or any other investigative agency,” Mr. Minerly said.
“As we have stated, we have outreach going on right now with our work force, and we have been very proactive in listening to our work force, which has had results in some way, shape, or form to the way this agency does business.”
Today, the agency operates a Web-based anonymous forum to make suggestions to leadership on needed changes or security gaps, and in 2006 created an ombudsman position to handle questions and concerns in a confidential manner.