HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Congressional investigators have begun looking into the Transportation Security Administration's controversial practice of involuntary employee reassignments with short notice, following a lawsuit filed by two former TSA managers in Hawaii.
The two former senior TSA managers have filed discrimination and prohibited practices complaints that said they were transferred to mainland posts with only a few days notice after speaking out about security deficiencies at airports in the islands.
On February 29, the TSA temporarily suspended involuntary reassignments of its employees after some of them complained managers sent them to faraway states in retaliation for whistle blowing.
That happened just two weeks before Hawaii News Now reported on two top TSA managers in Hawaii who said they were transferred to Seattle and Los Angeles with just a few days notice after pointing out security vulnerabilities in airports across Hawaii.
U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) said that, "If it comes out that it's true that there are people in leadership positions who are retaliating on those who report problems, who are creating this culture of retribution, then they should be immediately removed from that position."
The U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has asked the TSA for detailed records on all involuntary employee assignments going back four years.
Honolulu attorney Elbridge Smith, who represents the two Hawaii women who have filed whistleblower and gender discrimination complaints against the TSA, said he's happy to see the Congressional investigation.
"I think now that Congress is actually looking and demanding documents, and demanding people to come, maybe some things will happen," he said.
"We'd like to see some heads roll so that the next people that come along understand that they need to follow the law the same as the rest of us do," Smith said.
The whistleblowers said at least 50 TSA officers and managers across the country have been involuntarily transferred to faraway jobs because they fell out of favor with management for one reason or another in the last four years.
Heather Callahan Chuck, a former deputy federal security director in charge of day-to-day TSA operations at Honolulu International Airport, is one of the whistleblowers.
"I think they lose a lot of historical knowledge when folks leave. I think the disruption to leadership impacts ongoing security initiatives. I think it's a morale bummer, downer, if you will," Chuck said.
Chuck said she was blamed for security vulnerabilities that had existed for years before she arrived in Hawaii.
With three days notice, she was sent to the Los Angeles for two months, then transferred back to Honolulu in the fall of 2014. She said TSA bosses later gave her a bad evaluation, a demotion and wanted to transfer her to La Guardia Airport in New York City, so she quit the agency.
The other whistleblower, Sharlene Mata, was also a deputy federal security director who oversaw day-to-day TSA operations at all neighbor island airports.
A lifelong Kauai resident, she was given just three days by her TSA superiors to transfer to Seattle to a lower paying job. Both women said the involuntary transfers came just two weeks after they filed a gender discrimination case against the agency. Mata remains at TSA in Seattle two years later, overseeing administrative matters for the TSA in Washington state.
"Many lives and careers have been destroyed because of this. This regime's success in doing so has really plagued the TSA's leadership across the nation with the fear of retaliation in speaking up," Mata said.
"I believe our story has created a grassroots movement of people across the TSA that have been wronged and are now wanting to share their stories," Mata added.
After Hawaii News Now ran two stories about the women earlier this month, Chuck said he was "overwhelmed" by social media, email messages and phone calls from TSA employees across the country.
"I've had other employees calling me. Every place from Boston to Washington, DC, Alaska, California, saying, 'Hey, we've also been mistreated and we hope you get some resolution and here's our story in case that helps or you can help us," Chuck said.
The man who oversaw the two in Hawaii, Stanford Miyamoto, retired from the TSA as federal security director in Hawaii and the Pacific at the end of 2015, a TSA spokesman said.
Chuck said the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has called at least four TSA employees to give sworn testimony in its investigation and the two Hawaii women have spoken at length with Congressional investigators.
The two women said they've also been interviewed by a reporter from The New York Times, which is expected to run a story about the issue soon.