- Associated Press - Thursday, June 4, 2015

Star Tribune, June 3

Tests by undercover TSA agents reveal unacceptable gaps in security screening

Look at your fellow travelers the next time you’re in an airport security line. There’s a unique expression shared by most waiting to have their carry-on bags and persons scrutinized by Transportation Security Administration officers (TSA).

It’s a look best described as pained-yet-determined patience. No one enjoys putting toiletries in Ziploc bags and removing shoes, keys, coins and laptops in a rush to get them into plastic bins. No traveler, even if the luggage is Louis Vuitton, looks dignified trudging through the scanner in sockfeet. Yet we endure this with eyes straight ahead and lips pursed to suppress groans at slower, less experienced travelers because the payoff is public safety.

At least, that’s what we’ve been told. But this week, the leaked - and abysmal - results of test screenings by an undercover TSA team raises frustrating questions about what travelers are getting in return for their time and the investment of hundreds of millions of tax dollars into agency staffing and technology. Is the current airport screening process effective? Or is it merely “security theater,” as expert Bruce Schneier has dubbed it, that does relatively little but consumes so much energy that more evolved, effective safeguards fail to get due consideration?

Fourteen years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, it’s time to ask these questions. The recent leak about TSA screenings ought to jump-start a national debate. Agents posing as passengers at various airports across the nation were able to sneak fake bombs or weapons past TSA officers almost every time they tried. According to ABC News, the undercover agents “succeeded” in 95 percent of test runs. One agent with a taped-on mock bomb wasn’t stopped after setting off a detection alarm and getting a pat-down. How does this happen?

It’s unclear which airports were involved in the testing. Department of Homeland Security officials declined to say if Minneapolis-St. Paul was one of them. Metropolitan Airports Commission officials in Minnesota referred information requests to Homeland Security.

The federal agency has apparently reassigned the head of airport screening to another internal job. But answers to other legitimate questions were not forthcoming: Was it a type of screening equipment that failed repeatedly? Do other checkpoints, such as those for low-level airport employees, have gaping weaknesses? Are agent hiring practices or training flawed?

The exercise’s test results are preliminary and classified, the agency said in a statement that also provided vague reassurances about improvements and “multiple layers of detection and protection.” But in 2013, there were similar assurances - and excuses - when an undercover agent wearing a fake bomb evaded TSA screeners. The situation obviously has not improved, which is why Homeland Security needs to provide more than the “nothing to see here, move along” statement that it has. The flying public also deserves an honest, clear-eyed assessment of whether current screening practices are delivering the protections we expect.


St. Paul Pioneer Press, June 3

Auditor’s concerns require a full airing

Whatever’s ultimately decided about who conducts audits of county governments in Minnesota, the debate should focus on what’s best for taxpayers and transparency.

On one side, State Auditor Rebecca Otto, easily re-elected last fall to her third four-year term, is defending the mission and scope of her office in the face of new legislation that allows more counties to hire private accounting firms to do audits now undertaken by her staff.

On the other are those like Rep. Sarah Anderson, a Plymouth Republican, who told us the disagreement “is more about protecting turf.”

The measure was included in a wide-ranging state government funding bill that passed in the final hours of this year’s regular legislative session and was signed by Gov. Mark Dayton.

It was the middle of the night, Otto said, when “people don’t make good decisions.” She wants Minnesotans to understand what’s at risk with privatization: Efforts to diminish the work of her office put us “at a crossroads as a state in terms of whether we’re going to continue our good government legacy,” she told the editorial board.

The state auditor argues that counties - unlike other government entities - uniquely serve as arms of the state as its dollars flow for human services, corrections, transportation and other programs counties run.

The work of the state auditor’s staff provides a needed double-check on those taxpayer dollars, Otto told us. “That’s the role of this office, so people can trust their government.”

There’s concern, too, about dates in the measure. It makes privatization effective Aug. 1, 2016, but also includes a provision, Otto said, under which her agency loses its audit authority effective July 1, 2015. With work under way and deadlines looming, “It’s going to create chaos,” she said.

But Rep. Anderson, chair of the State Government Finance Committee, argues that it’s “still up for debate whether that’s truly the case.”

But even if it were, she said, the matter would amount to “a simple fix,” ”a technical correction” that could be accomplished in the coming special session.

Audits for 28 of the state’s 87 counties already are handled by private auditing firms. Former State Auditor Pat Anderson, whom Otto defeated in 2006 and again in 2010, explained that after cuts during the Pawlenty administration there no longer was a large enough staff to audit all of the counties.

The policy allows Swift County in west central Minnesota to pay half the rate of surrounding counties, Rep. Sarah Anderson told us.

“That’s a pretty compelling argument for taxpayers,” the lawmaker said. “Any time the counties can save money, that helps to offset the property tax burden.”

At the same time, Rep. Sarah Anderson told us, “we think it’s OK for Hennepin County - the largest county in our state money-wise and population-wise” - to also seek its audits in the private market.

Further, explains Julie Ring, executive director of the Association of Minnesota Counties, the authority to engage in a private audit is something other local units of government, including towns, school boards and all but the largest cities, already have. (The auditor’s office, Otto said, has the authority to audit all cities and school districts, and would do so if it was deemed in the public’s interest.)

In addition to the ability to compare costs, timeliness and communication are issues for the counties. Timelines in the state auditor’s office are a factor in “audit reports coming back too late to be of use in the next budget cycle,” Ring said.

She notes that the auditor’s office has put in place worksheets and other tools to “help counties be ready move forward as quickly as possible,” but even with those improvements, counties “still feel turn-around time from the state auditor’s office is often problematic.”

Ramsey County Board Chair Jim McDonough cited good service from the state auditor’s office and a relationship that works well. He told us flexibility for counties is important but that he “doesn’t see us making a move.”

Others among the association’s member counties agree. They like working with the state auditor’s office and are happy with its service, Ring said.

Regardless of any moves, she points out, the state auditor’s oversight remains key.

The office “still does a desk review of every private audit,” and can ask for more information as needed, Ring said. “We think that’s an important piece of the oversight, and an appropriate and important role for that office.”

Some have suggested political motivations for the move, including Otto’s opposition to granting some mining leases in northern Minnesota.

Former Gov. Arne Carlson, also a former state auditor, goes further in a blog post Tuesday suggesting that “this episode represents a most dangerous threat to our state’s Constitution in that it constitutes an effort to intimidate an elected official.”

What’s transpired “doesn’t hurt me politically,” Otto told us. “I’ll still be here. It’s just that I’m not going to be running an extraordinarily important function for the people, and that’s wrong.”

When they gather for the special session, lawmakers should make clarity on the office’s audit authority an agenda priority. Beyond that, Otto’s concerns deserve full, light-of-day consideration by lawmakers and citizens. Lawmaking under cloak of night is for people with something to hide.


St. Cloud Times, June 4

Tough penalties for dance team coaches justified

Coaches for four high school dance teams have been suspended for a year because of their role in a protest staged during the awards ceremony at the state Class 3A high-kick tournament Feb. 14.

Teams from Chaska, Eastview, Lakeville South and Wayzata protested what they claim was a plagiarized routine by the winning team from Faribault. Those teams, including Eden Prairie, had their teams move away from the Faribault team during the awards ceremony.

The protest was disrespectful and poor sportsmanship.

The action was a blatant slap in the face for the sport and the high school league.

The coaches’ suspensions were justified. The high school league board needed to send a clear message to coaches and teams: Show respect and sportsmanship.

If coaches or teams have a beef with the results of a competition, follow the high school league’s procedures.

If the high school league’s board would have allowed the protest to go unchallenged it would have opened the door for additional, and perhaps more flagrant, displays of taunting or protests.

Coaches set the tone for the players’ reaction after emotion-laden competition. Respect and good sportsmanship should be the lesson from coaches to players. Coaches should insist players act with the utmost respect. Win or lose - no taunting, no protests.

In this case, league officials investigated the claim of plagiarism. Officials intend to review the rules and look at possible changes later this year.

The league’s executive/eligibility committee supported suspending the coaches. A letter of censure will be sent to each program’s activities director. Coaches must participate in an in-service called Why We Play, sponsored by the league.

Each of the four schools did their own investigations and handed down less severe discipline. Five coaches from the Eden Prairie team, which took part in the protest, decided not to continue as coaches. But school officials said the decisions weren’t based on disciplinary actions, according to a news report in the Star Tribune.

Dance team supporters and competitors have worked hard to build support for dance team as a high school league-sanctioned sport.

The protests were a mistake. The coaches have paid the price. The second- and third-place teams have received their medals. The rules will be reviewed and changes probably will be made.

It’s time to move on.

The message remains unequivocal: Don’t mess with the league’s rules and standards of conduct.

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