Secrets of the Sky Patrol

July 11, 2012 9:07:58 PM PDT
Federal air marshals who travel incognito aboard commercial jetliners are facing some serious challenges on the ground, especially in their Chicago office.

The I-Team first reported allegations last March that senior air marshal officials in Chicago routinely ridiculed women, berated minorities, and retaliated against officers who fell out of favor. The I-Team has learned that top officials of Chicago's air marshal office are under investigation by the Homeland Security Inspector General.

Federal air marshals, known as FAMs, have a critical role in the security of America's commercial aviation industry. Armed, onboard officers are considered the last line of defense between terrorists-and another 911.

One of the nation's largest air marshal offices is near O'Hare Airport - the unmarked building where hundreds of air marshals are assigned and where their supervisors, most ex-Secret Service agents, make their lives a living hell, according to retired air marshal Herman Nelson.

"I've had women that are federal air marshals calling me crying on the phone and some of them are on valium and seeing psychiatrists because of the behavior toward them which I feel is a misogynistic attitude and an attempt to force as many women out of the agency as they can along with the racist, sexist and homophobic behavior," said Nelson.

Nelson is a career federal lawman in Chicago. On behalf of several other ex-air marshals, he contacted Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, who pushed for a federal inquiry.

Although Durbin declines to discuss it, a letter to the senator from a Transportation Security Administration official in May addressed the "alleged inappropriate behavior/misconduct" at the Federal Air Marshal Chicago office, and noted that the matter was being referred to the TSA's Office of Inspector General for Investigation.

Nelson and retired air marshal Mike Verre have both been interviewed by federal inspectors about what they witnessed and what they told the I-Team in March.

"This upper management is causing a loss of esprit de corps of the air marshals themselves," said Verre.

Current air marshal employees in Chicago have also been questioned by U.S. authorities.

"They went in and they were targeting their questions toward people who possibly could be involved in misogynistic and racist behavior as well as criminal behavior. So, when they went in and conducted their interviews, the way I understand it there was a secret list formulated that had disparaging remarks about anybody in the office that had received disciplinary action," said Nelson. "It's like a cancer and it continues to fester and it just continues to go on, and this thing is not relegated just to the Chicago office; it's in numerous offices: Arizona, Tampa, Miami."

Last month, eight air marshals were fired for drinking at Hooters during a break from a New York training exercise last winter. Some of them were armed at the time, and they asked for a law enforcement discount to lower the bill.

While the Chicago investigation is new, TSA officials have said that much of the mismanagement across the country has been cleaned up and misconduct stopped. They did not respond to our requests for information specifically concerning the investigation of the Chicago office.

The Federal Air Marshal Service, a branch of the Transportation Security Administration, once again declined requests to answer questions concerning the ABC7 I-Team Report or address allegations of incompetence, bigotry and sexism on the part of senior managers at the Chicago office.

TSA re-sent this statement that was prepared several months ago to address management issues investigated by the Inspector General's Office within the Department of Homeland Security:

"The Inspector General found no evidence of widespread discrimination or retaliation in the Federal Air Marshal Service and noted that these challenges do not interfere with the mission of the agency.

Throughout the process of the investigation, the Inspector General provided feedback of their findings to Federal Air Marshal leadership.

TSA took a proactive approach to the issues raised and has developed and implemented solutions ahead of the conclusion of the investigation.

Through working groups, listening sessions, and advisory councils, FAMS leadership has demonstrated its commitment to improving communications within the workforce."

Read the Inspector General's report on discrimination and retaliation at the Federal Air Marshal Service: http://www.oig.dhs.gov/assets/Mgmt/OIG_12-28_Jan12.pdf

"Air Marshals Gone Wild" by Brian Ross, ABCNews: http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/air-marshals-wild-tales-sexism-suicide-bigotry/story?id=15532865


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