EXCLUSIVE: 2 top Hawaii TSA managers sue agency for discrimination, retaliation

Published: Mar. 15, 2016 at 9:11 PM HST|Updated: Mar. 15, 2016 at 10:44 PM HST
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(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The two women who used to run day-to-day Transportation Security Administration operations at all Hawaii airports are suing the agency for discrimination and filed another complaint claiming they were retaliated against for reporting numerous security vulnerabilities.

Both women are well-respected veterans who had worked at TSA headquarters for a period of time, earned six-figure salaries and were some of the highest-ranking women in the TSA organization.

Heather Callahan Chuck was the first woman to head all field operations across 466 airports for TSA for a year and before that was federal security director at Phoenix's Sky Harbor International Airport, a much larger and busier airport than Honolulu. Callahan Chuck said she worried she was the victim of gender discrimination when she was essentially demoted to Hawaii in early 2014 as the deputy TSA director in charge of operations at Honolulu.

"They wanted my operational strength back in Honolulu. They felt that Honolulu needed to step up its game and really start to function at a higher level," Callahan Chuck told Hawaii News Now.

Within days of starting the assignment, she said she began reporting security and management problems to TSA's Hawaii director -- Stanford Miyamoto -- and putting together a plan to fix them.

"Rather than participating in the solution, which was resolving those situations, I think he took it as a personal attack.  And I think he has a problem with strong females and spent his energies retaliating against us," Callahan Chuck said.

Sharlene Mata – a lifelong Kauai resident – was the deputy TSA director for neighbor island airports. She had previously served as the deputy director of field operations for all of TSA under Callahan Chuck and as regional director for TSA's Northwest region.

Mata said Miyamoto "did not want the two of us women reporting to him and immediately he started discriminating against us."

Mata and Callahan Chuck said Miyamoto had the two women report to men who were their subordinates, instead of him.

They both filed equal employment complaints against TSA in April 2014, and two weeks later managers demoted Mata and Callahan Chuck and immediately transferred them to Seattle and Ontario, Calif., respectively, with just three days' notice. The new positions were demotions with lower salaries, they said.

They were notified of the transfer on the Thursday before the Good Friday holiday, and told to be at their new posts the next Monday, they said.

In Callahan Chuck's case, the "temporary internal assignment" happened a week and a half after her husband suffered a stroke and she was able to use a month of sick time to care for him before moving to California.

"I was basically sent to California to sit there for a non-job until they elected to bring me back here (to Honolulu) to take the blame for their errors," Callahan Chuck said.

She was sent to Ontario, Calif., a threat level one airport which has less than 100 TSA officers, compared to Honolulu, which has 700 officers and is a threat level 10 airport, the highest threat level in the system, Callahan Chuck said. Honolulu is one of 28 of the highest threat level airports in the country.

A TSA spokesman said the agency cannot comment on this story because it involves a personnel matter.

TSA managers sent Mata, who had lived on Kauai since she was three years old, to Seattle, which she said was punishment for doing her job and pointing out problems that needed fixing at TSA.

"They believe people will not move so they want us to resign or retire. It's their way of getting rid of people," Mata said. "I was devastated and just in shock. I could not believe what was going on."

Deputy Federal Security Director Frank Abreu, who oversaw TSA operations in Guam, Saipan and American Samoa, also was abruptly transferred and demoted to assistant federal security director post in Burbank, Calif., also in April of 2014. That happened just a week after he refused to provide a written statement to Miyamoto that Callahan Chuck and Mata had made derogatory comments about Miyamoto, the women said.

Callahan Chuck called the three reassignments a "blatant waste of government funds" approved by TSA leadership.

Honolulu Attorney Elbridge Smith is representing both women in their discrimination lawsuit with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and in their prohibited practices complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel.

"In this case, it's so interesting that they want to pick on the women to make them scapegoats for what the men had done wrong," Smith said.

Miyamoto, the former federal security director for Hawaii and the Pacific region, retired at the end of 2015, a TSA spokesman said.

Mata remains in Seattle nearly two years after her abrupt transfer, where she's assistant federal security director of mission support, overseeing TSA administration such as budgets, hiring and training in Washington state.

"I pray that I can get home one day and I've been doing that for two years, believing that somebody within this agency would identify that they did something very wrong here," Mata said. "But it's still two years and it seems that there are more and more cover ups to the wrongs instead of wanting to make it right."

Callahan Chuck quit the TSA when managers gave her a bad evaluation and wanted to demote her, once again cut her pay and send her to La Guardia airport in New York City.  She continues to live on Oahu.

"What I went through was horrific," Callahan Chuck said. "I'm now in my late 40s and now we've got to figure out how I'm going to start a new career for myself."

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