EXCLUSIVE: Hawaii TSA had 'record number' of violations, discrepancies

EXCLUSIVE: Hawaii TSA had 'record number' of violations, discrepancies
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Transportation Security Administration whistleblowers said they discovered glaring security deficiencies at Hawaii airports and then were retaliated against for pointing them out and trying to fix the problems.

Heather Callahan Chuck, who was in charge of TSA operations in Honolulu, and Sharlene Mata, who oversaw TSA on the neighbor islands, said they found 15 types of security vulnerabilities and administrative deficiencies at Hawaii airports when they took over in early 2014.

One big problem: They said front-line TSA officers in Hawaii were not receiving intelligence briefings.

"It could be something more significant that could impact security, so if somebody wasn't up on the latest information, then they wouldn't conduct a screening process that way," Chuck said.

She said she ensured the intelligence briefings were re-started in Honolulu.

"It wasn't happening until I made it happen, quite frankly," Chuck said.

Chuck said TSA managers were also mis-reporting passenger wait time reports by estimating the amount of time passengers waited in TSA screening lines instead of actually measuring them, as is the proper TSA procedure.

She was shocked to see Honolulu reported no TSA wait times longer than 20 minutes, even during the busy Thanksgiving and Christmas travel season.

"Those things should have raised a red flag that it's not likely that the wait times went away, but that the methodology wasn't proper," Chuck said.

When she raised the wait time problems with her boss, then-Federal Security Director Stanford Miyamoto, Chuck said he told her she needed to apologize to the man who oversaw wait time records.

"Unfortunately, when I brought attention to it, the result was to remove me and not solve the problem," Chuck said.

TSA leaders abruptly transferred  Chuck to the Los Angeles area and Mata to Seattle just two weeks after they filed gender discrimination complaints against the agency in April of 2014. The two women said important fixes to some TSA problems were delayed for months when they were transferred by their bosses to the West Coast.

"When you discover security vulnerabilities, they need to be corrected immediately," Mata said. "We cannot afford to have any kind of vulnerability in security."

But that didn't happen.

Seven months after the two women initially raised questions about problems, in August 2014, the TSA sent an inspection team to Hawaii that discovered a record number of 96 discrepancies -- more than Chuck had ever seen at any airport in her 12-year career. Chuck had run the TSA's national operations for a year and was federal security director at Phoenix's Sky Harbor International Airport for a year before that.

The whistleblowers said the inspection found that the Hawaii TSA failed in key areas such as security, operations and administration.

The TSA transferred Chuck back to Honolulu from Los Angeles June 2014.

But Chuck said her boss, Miyamoto, blamed her for the problems that were documented in the inspection that pre-dated her tenure.

Miyamoto gave Chuck a failed job evaluation at the end of 2014, and notified her she was going to be demoted, her pay cut and she would be transferred from Hawaii to La Guardia Airport in New York City.

Callahan Chuck quit her job to avoid the demotion and another transfer.

Mata remains in Seattle and is in charge of TSA budgets, hiring, training and other administrative duties in Washington state.

Miyamoto retired at the end of 2015, a TSA spokesman said.

The TSA declined comment on the case because it involves a personnel matter.

Honolulu attorney Elbridge Smith, who is representing the women in an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lawsuit and a complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, said the two whistleblowers should be commended.

"They're trying to fix what's wrong. And then when they're retaliated against or shut down, that's particularly egregious," he said. "In this case, management singles out a few women who are highly placed who do this and make them the scapegoats."

Chuck, who still lives on Oahu, said she is the only Honolulu TSA employee "who was removed from the airport here and then returned to HNL and scapegoated to take the blame for the failures of other managers who contributed to the creation of these deficiencies and vulnerabilities."

Despite what Chuck called Miyamoto's "gross mismanagement and record high" inspection discrepancies, he kept his job, position, professional reputation and quality of life, she said, before he retired a few months ago.

Both women said they were devastated when TSA transferred them with only a few days notice to jobs in other states, a practice known at TSA as involuntary directed reassignments.

"My whole lifestyle has changed. I feel like I'm starting my life all over again," said Mata, who remains at the Seattle TSA office nearly two years after her abrupt transfer. She said she hopes to return to Kauai, her lifelong home.

Other TSA whistleblowers across the country and those who fell out of favor with management for other reasons said TSA leaders use reassignments as punishment or as a way to force workers to quit.

Drew Rhoades, a senior TSA manager in Minneapolis, told television station FOX 9 last month that his bosses wanted to suddenly transfer him to a job in Tampa, Fla. because they suspected him of leaking information on security breaches to the media.

Since he had recently divorced, moving to Florida would have caused him to lose custody of his children, Rhoades said. Rhoades sought reconsideration of the reassignment and the TSA canceled it, FOX 9 reported.

On Feb. 29, TSA's Office of Human Capital temporarily suspended involuntary directed reassignments. TSA officials are now supposed to consult with the human capital office at TSA before reassigning an employee, the agency said.

"It has come to the attention of agency senior officials that this consultation with (Office of Human Capital) is not being regularly sought and may have resulted in inconsistent application of human capital policy and procedures," the TSA said in the memo suspending involuntary reassignments.

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