I-Team Report: Marshal Law

March 7, 2012 8:51:43 PM PST
Since 9/11, the Chicago bureau of the Federal Air Marshal Service has been a pivotal office in keeping U.S. air passengers and aircraft safe in the skies.

But the I-Team looked into allegations on the ground that senior managers at Chicago's federal air marshal office routinely ridicule women and berate blacks, Hispanics, gays and veterans, and that Illinois' elected officials have ignored calls for help.

Federal air marshals are trained to prevent another 9/11. Every day "fams," as they are known, travel incognito aboard many of the nation's 25,000 commercial flights. Hundreds of officers are deployed from an unmarked, non-descript building near O'Hare.

In Chicago, fams are anything but a big, happy family.

"The Chicago office is completely out of control," said Herman Nelson, former federal air marshal.

Nelson retired from the air marshal service in 2010. Nelson, a career federal lawman in Chicago, says most upper managers of the air marshal agency are retired Secret Service officials.

"When this agency was created, they came to get the air marshals up and running, they got in and started discriminating against African Americans, Latinos, homophobic behavior, sexist behavior, any kind of discrimination you can name they've done it, disabled vets, people over a certain age," said Nelson.

Nelson and former Chicago air marshal supervisor Michael Verre talked with the I-Team. Verre was fired in 2007, he says, after complaining about numerous cases of top managers humiliating minorities, including one Hispanic air marshal who was told by his supervisor to perform a Mexican hat dance if he wanted a family day off.

"The only way I'm going to approve this is if you put that little monkey hat on and you dance in front of my desk," said Verre. "Did you ever see the monkey and the organ grinder? He wanted him to put the hat on his head and dance around like that."

"These are seasoned agents and this kind of behavior is unacceptable," said Nelson. "This isn't the year 1820. This is the year 2012 and we want it brought to light."

A recent report brought some of it to light. A two-year investigation by the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general found:

  • federal air marshals repeatedly portrayed their supervisors as vindictive, aggressive, and guilty of favoritism
  • 33 percent of the female employees surveyed believed they had been subject to discrimination
  • 454 formal or informal equal opportunity complaints were filed by employees between September 2006 and April 2011

Nearly all of the bias complaints were denied, including Herman Nelson's.

"The EEO process is a farce and that investigation that they did, those were inspectors and they channeled those interviews toward people who they knew were going to say what they wanted to hear," said Nelson. "What we want is an independent investigation from an independent from an independent agency to come in and look at these problems in the Chicago office and elsewhere."

In the Orlando office, the inspector general found air marshal supervisors played a "Jeopardy"-style game replete with racial and sexual slurs aimed at co-workers.

"In terms of addressing those issues, obviously, a number of personnel changes were made," said John Pistole, TSA administrator. "Several people were fired. Some people resigned. New management was brought in in several locations to address both the perception and the reality of the situation."

Air marshal officials in Chicago would not do an interview or answer questions about the allegations from former Chicago employees. The I-Team was referred to Washington, where officials sent us a month-old stock statement with their belief that "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."

"What we are asking is that the Congress conduct an investigation," said Nelson.

Nelson, Verre and several former co-workers say they have written to government officials outlining the alleged misconduct that they say continues to this day.

"Their behavior is completely unacceptable and out of control, and that's why I wanted to tell the story," said Nelson.

Numerous current and former federal air marshals wanted to appear in Wednesday's I-Team report but feared retaliation and so they let Nelson and Verre speak for them.

Herman Nelson renewed his federal bias complaint and he and Michael Verre are in the process of re-filing a federal lawsuit against TSA. Their previous lawsuit was dismissed due to a technical error.

The Federal Air Marshal Service, a branch of the Transportation Security Administration, 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.

A TSA spokeswoman provided this statement that was prepared several weeks 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 Marshal's Gone Wild" by Brian Ross, ABCNews: http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/air-marshals-wild-tales-sexism-suicide-bigotry/story?id=15532865