A Whistleblower Takes Us Inside a Dysfunctional TSA
Fifteen years after its creation, the TSA is a toxic snake pit of corruption and retaliation — which is very dangerous for the public.
A senior TSA manager at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport who has become a whistleblower talks to WhoWhatWhy’s Jeff Schechtman about the scandalous corruption within the agency, and the retaliation that follows attempts to improve the situation.
Andrew Rhoades is an Assistant Federal Security Director at the Minneapolis St. Paul Airport. Rhoades is in charge of mission support and logistics.
He refused when he was pressured by his supervisor to profile Somali-American Imams and community members who visited his office.
His refusal set off a chain of events that included his filing reports through the TSA chain of command and the Department of Homeland Security, and finally testifying before Congress.
It has been over two years, and still no one has responded to his reports. On the other hand, the TSA wasted no time in subjecting him to reprisals.
Rhoades also discusses the toxic culture and poor morale within the agency. It’s a place, he says, that allows and even condones sexual harassment among managers, and engages in waste, abuse, and fraud.
If you’ve ever stood in line at TSA security, this is a must listen.
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Full Text Transcript:
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy, I’m Jeff Schechtman.
The recent attempts by the Trump administration to put in place a travel ban, while far more extreme, only reflects a more formal attempt to do what some elements in the Department of Homeland Security and the TSA have already been doing in a different fashion. Our guest today, Andrew Rhoades, an Assistant Federal Security Director for the TSA at the Minneapolis Airport, says he was told to profile Somalis and other community members in Minnesota. His opposition to that and his response to that has put in place a series of reprisals against him that has resulted in his testimony before Congress, and to begin to call public attention, and awareness to, some of the unsavory practices and toxic environment of the Transportation Security Administration. Andrew Rhoades is a former army ranger who joined the TSA after 9/11. And it is my pleasure to welcome Andrew Rhoades to Radio WhoWhatWhy. Andrew thanks so much for joining us.
Andrew Rhoades: Thank you sir for having me.
Jeff: Tell us a little about how you wound up at TSA and why you joined originally.
Andrew: Well, that’s a good question. First of all, I was in the military and I exited because at the time my wife and I, in the eight years that we’ve been together, we’ve seen each other less than three. And so we were thinking about starting a family and it was a very tough decision for me, so I exited the military and decided to go into business. I worked at Kraft Foods in Tarrytown, New York. When 9/11 happened, and I was proximately maybe 18 months removed from this military service when 9/11 happened, and I felt the need to somehow serve my country back. So I joined the Department of Homeland Security, or at the time it was actually the TSA, to help protect our transportation systems.
Jeff: And when you went there, what kind of job did you have originally, and talk a little bit about your career there.
Andrew: I originally what was called the Assistant Federal Security Director for Screening at the Minneapolis St. Paul Airport, a very challenging, very rewarding job. I federalize the MSP Airport in October, about 2003 I believe it was, and just had a magnificent time. It was again very challenging, very stressful, but a lot of camaraderie, a lot of trust, because we were working long hours. I held several positions within the TSA. I was what’s called an Area Staff Director for 119 airports in 13 states in the upper Midwest area. And professionally speaking, the most rewarding position, or at least assignment for me, was when the TSA sent me to the Industrial College of the Armed Forces. It was a one-year Masters degree. I was still being paid of the TSA. And I went to Washington, DC at Fort McNair, studied national security strategy and the resourcing component. And I was very fortunate, very humble to have been selected, and then I came back to Minneapolis and I’ve been here ever since.
Jeff: And one of the important things in looking at the arc of your career there, is that you had been rewarded more or less every step of the way. You had gotten great performance reports and were moving up the ladder.
Andrew: That’s true for a brief while. I was promoted actually to the SES ranks and I was in Las Vegas, Nevada, at the Las Vegas airport, but then I returned home based upon some family priorities. And you know truth be told, I was a little bit of a workaholic, and I needed to focus back on my family, so I returned to Minnesota. But yes, I was rewarded if you will. I’ve gotten great assignments, saw a lot of responsibility at work with magnificent people, and from that aspect, I feel grateful.
Jeff: And talk a little bit about what happened when this whole issue of profiling came up. Tell our listeners a little bit how it came up and what the reaction was.
Andrew: Well, the incident actually occurred on April 8, 2016. It was part of my performance review and it was written inside my performance review that my supervisor wanted me to send the names of all the Somali visitors that would visit me at the off airport location – that’s kind of important for your listeners to understand – and send their names to what’s called our field intelligence officer. And so I wasn’t asked to do this for, by any Anglo-Saxon Protestant folks. I wasn’t asked to do this for any Jewish residents or Jewish people that might come to our offices, and so I thought it was very strong… I felt very strongly that this is profiling. So what I did was I reached out to the St. Paul police chief a guy by the name of Thomas Smith and I showed him my actual performance evaluation. I sent it to him and I said this is what was sent, and he immediately said: “That’s wrong. We don’t, we, the St. Paul Police Department, we don’t even take the names of Somali personnel against any lists or intelligence activities, or anti-gang-related criminal units.”
Like any other person, if they come to see me they’re a permanent… I mean they’re a citizen or someone of this country that might solicit my help I just… the ironic factor is I’ve been working with the Somali community for the past 10 years to help them with travel redress. So if someone were to exhibit or to experience some problems and they wanted to let’s say… my name is Andrew N. Rhoades, which is correct, that’s my real name. And let’s say there’s an Andrew B. Rhoades who is a terrorist or someone that’s on a watch list. Well, if I only input Andrew Rhoades when I make my reservation, there could be misunderstanding, and the reservation system might think I’m the Andrew B. Rhoades, as opposed to the Andrew N. Rhoades. Well, I’m oversimplifying, but a lot of times people of Somali descent may have very similar names. Instead of Mohamud, Mohamed. Just that slight different change in spelling they could easily wind up of a mistaken identity. So they would come to see me, to what’s called Travelers or DHS Trip, and I would help them get a redress number that would help them resolve their problems. So in order to do, so they’d have to come to my office which again is not in the airport. So it’s a regular government office that any person should be allowed to come to my office. But what was different was the minute I reported that, I actually reported that to my agency’s chief counsel, and I reported that to the former TSA administrator Peter Neffenger, and I reported that to our system administrator for the Office of Civil Rights and Liberties on April 18, 2016 and I never got a response, ever. So I waited a couple weeks and nothing happened. So finally I said I’m trying to address this internally within my agency and they refused to acknowledge it. So what I did was I reported it to Congress to the House Oversight and Government Reform committee, that’s where I testified on the behalf, and then I also I reported it to The New York Times who ran a story the morning that I was slated to… So the story broke, and as you can imagine, a lot of people were interested in that. I spoke to both my elected representatives here in Minnesota, and they were very supportive, supportive of me, and ironically the Department of Homeland Security, I sent you actually the press release on May 5th, and in the press release it said that they’re going to conduct an investigation and publish a report as appropriate. Maybe your viewers might be interested to know that since April 8, the day I was told to profile, until today, it’s been 314 days and there’s been no report. Since April 18, the day I reported it to my agency, my agency’s chief counsel, it’s been 304 days and nothing has been done about it. Since April 27, the day I appeared before Congress and the day that the story was broken by The New York Times, it’s been 295 days. And since May 5th, 2016, the day of the DHS OIG press release, it’s been 287 days, and still there’s been no report. And I could tell you from conversations with, that I have with the Somali community, they are absolutely incensed because what it does, it gives the appearance that the government’s not taking this seriously and they’re sweeping it under the rug. And what it’s doing, it is doing more damage to the relationship with the government, in the Somali community, than me actually coming forward and reporting the racial profiling incident itself.
Jeff: And you were in fact accused by one of your supervisors of “going native.”
Andrew: That’s correct. I had, as part of my duties, I said I’ve been working with the Somali community for the past 10 years, and I visited what’s called the Abubakar mosque in Minneapolis. It was at a normally scheduled meeting with the Department of Homeland Security, so it’s an official meeting. So I didn’t go there on my own, it was not a weekend, it wasn’t in a personal capacity, I was there in an official government capacity. And we hold what’s called roundtable meetings, at least every quarterly now, with the Department of Homeland Security, law enforcement, local folks, and as you can imagine community members, elders of the church, imams, community members.
So I attended a meeting and during lunch one of the imams invited the whole, the whole, when I say congregation not necessarily from a church congregation, but the whole contingent to go into the actual mosque portion of the Abubakar mosque and pray. And for those who may not be of the Islamic faith, that’s a huge step, because generally speaking, I don’t mean to imply you’re never invited to the mosque. What I’m saying is, when you have meetings it’s probably during the administrative areas is probably the best way to explain it. But we were actually for the first time ever, invited to go into the mosque and pray. Now I come from a multicultural or multifaith family. My mom is Buddhist, she lives in Japan, she’s a fervent Buddhist. I grew up Christian. I have Muslim people in my family. So for me it wasn’t really shocking, it wasn’t, you know, anything new for me to be in a multicultural or a multifaith facility. So I actually sat down and prayed with the imams, with a specific imam. He was kind enough to show me how to culturally pray, and I did that. Now I pray to Jesus, I pray to my God, and after that meeting when I went back to the offices, the federal security director was speaking with my supervisor and said that, “Drew is going native,” and you know, the comment stands by itself. Any person of reasonable, any reasonable person would know the ramifications of that statement.
Jeff: You’ve talked too earlier about no report, in all of this time. Talk a little bit about the initial reprisals that were set up against you.
Andrew: Well, prior to that, I’d gotten what’s called a directed reassignment. So they thought I was immediately to… Fox 9 reporter, gentleman by the name of Tom [Wyden?], and I wasn’t. What had happened, they thought I was leaking embarrassing information, and on February 19, 2015, I get a directed reassignment from Minneapolis to the Tampa International Airport. No advance warning, no nothing, just got… went in, the federal security director said, “I’m issuing this to you,” and I had 10 days to respond to either sign it or not. And if I declined it, by agency policy, I was supposed to be fired. There’s no negotiations, either accept it or you are going to be fired. Well, I received information about the reason why I was getting directed reassignment. I reached out to the Office of Special Counsel, who accepted my case, and then eventually the agency rescinded their directed reassignment. So I’m very appreciative to the Office for Special Counsel, but that was one way I was retaliated against. Another way was an artificially low range of my performance evaluation. So in other words, the US attorney for the state of Minnesota, Andrew Luger, had sent me glowing comments, and I included that among other things with my performance evaluation. I said here’s the things that would justify a certain rating of my performance review. And I was, my performance review was lowered, which actually currently now rests in the District Court of Minnesota. So I filed a lawsuit against my agency, and as it stands now it rests with the, an area office here in Minnesota, and actually went initially to court. The agency attempted to do what’s called a summary judgment which is basically to dismiss the action. The judge did not agree, and so I was able to add what’s called a retaliation component, which I think is huge, and I’m prepared to argue my case before the District Court of Minnesota.
Jeff: From what you have seen how unique is your situation, and how does it fit into the overall management and morale as you see it within TSA?
Andrew: Sadly my case is not isolated. There are multiple examples of retaliation and at the end of the day, why that’s important for the listeners, is the mismanagement and the dysfunction at TSA affects morale, which affects employee performance. So we have long-standing and persistent problems at TSA that have been unaddressed for many years. I’ll give you one example.
We have a gentleman who left the agency who was actually promoted to and what’s called a Tier 2 senior executive position for the United States Navy. His name is Mark Livingston. Mark Livingston was an assistant administrator in the Office of Intelligence. He had a person working for him named Alyssa Bermudez. Well, an assistant administrator came into Mr. Livingston’s office and started ogling Ms. Bermudez. And when Mr. Livingston found out, he said, “You need to stop that.” And what had happened was, this assistant administrator said, “What do you want to do when you want to grow up?” And according to Ms. Bermudez, was looking around her chest area. So Mr. Livingston very quickly excused Ms. Bermudez, and he said, “You need to knock that stuff off. If she filed a complaint you’re going to be in deep water.” So at the end of the day what had happened was, when Ms. Bermudez left, this assistant administrator said, “Hey, if it’s her word against mine, I want you to side with me.” In other words, it’s our word against hers. And Mr. Livingston said, “I’m not going to have any of that.” A former marine officer. So this person basically said, “Look, I’m not going to be able to work with you if you’re going to be a cowboy.” And what’s ironic is this assistant administrator worked in the Office of Inspections within TSA speak, that’s the office that conducts all the investigations against any employee. So they can open up a criminal investigation case against you. So what had happened was that Mr. Livingston was, an investigation was opened up against him. He was demoted two levels down while the investigation was ongoing. After the investigation concluded, and he was cleared, the agency refused to restore him back to his executive position. He has a current lawsuit in the District Court of Maryland against the agency. Alyssa Bermudez, the person that this assistant administrator ogled, she was reassigned after she submitted a sexual harassment complaint against the agency. But because she was what’s called a probationary employee, the agency terminated her five days before her probationary period ended.
Now what’s important for your listeners to understand is, after one year and you serve your probationary period, if you’re terminated, you can, as a government employee, file or argue your case in the federal courts. It’s called the Merit Systems Protection Board. But five days before she would have received that right, they moved her to a different office and then they fired her for performance. But you know the only problem with firing her for performance is, for your listeners to understand: her last performance evaluation was a 4.8 out of 5.0. Very rarely do many employees receive 4.8 out of 5.0. So in other words, that’s achieving excellence. So her last performance review was in achieving excellence, and five days before she would’ve received what’s called appellate board rights, and after she filed a sexual harassment complaint, she was terminated. That level of retaliation, that’s the level of cover-ups. And it gets worse, for your listeners. That same assistant administrator who ogled that Alyssa Bermudez, he was involved in an illicit relationship with a subordinate in his direct chain of command. What happened was, he had a relationship with her, and when they found out, he lied three times on an investigation. All this is in my written testimony before Congress. This same assistant administrator lied three times on an official investigation, and he’s still employed with the agency today. We have what’s called a table of penalties in our agency. So if I get a speeding ticket and I don’t report that, I might get a counseling statement for that. But as you can imagine, the more severe the penalty, the heavier the consequences. And any time, any employee in our agency is found to lie on an official investigation, the mandatory penalty is removal. He did it three times and he still has a job with the TSA. So that’s a huge problem, because if you’re part of the inner circle at the TSA headquarters, you get a golden parachute, or people look the other way. So there is double standards in my agency. So if you’re a rank-and-file person out in the field, and you make a mistake, you get the guillotine. But if you make repeated mistakes, repeated mistakes, there’s no consequences. And it gets worse. That same assistant administrator that I told you about, attempted to enter another female executive’s hotel room at two in the morning. A workgroup had been out to drinks and dinner, not necessarily partying, but I mean just social drinks and dinner, and at 2 o’clock in the morning – there’s a deposition, there’s a record of this occurring, that this assistant administrator has been deposed as part of another person’s harassment complaint against this assistant administrator – where he acknowledges he went to her hotel room at two in the morning, because according to him, he thought this female had his room key. Now any reasonable person in the world would say, if you don’t have your room, you’re going to go to the front desk or the front office to get a copy of it. You’re not going to go to a female colleague’s room at two in the morning. There’s only one reason a male goes to a female’s room at two o’clock in the morning, and it’s generally not for honorable reasons. That is the same assistant administrator. So I gave you three examples where the agency should have terminated this guy, and he’s still employed.
Jeff: You alluded to it before. Talk a little bit about the nexus and the difference between the management, the leadership of TSA, the people that you’ve been talking about, and the rank-and-file employees, the people that our listeners might be familiar with, with the blue shirts at the airport.
Andrew: Well exactly, investigations or terminations float through my office in Minneapolis. So for example, if an employee lies about, let’s say, an arrest record, or an employee is involved in some sort of criminal activity, they go through, and we, depending upon whether they’ve served their probationary period, we will issue them a notice of proposed removal. And then they’ll have an opportunity to respond. And then we’ll remove them based upon our table of penalties. That’s how it’s supposed to happen, but there are multiple examples with executives from the TSA headquarters, when they do wrong, it’s covered up. Let me give you another example. I provided you documentation that I was the person who submitted Kelly Hoggan, our former Assistant Administrator for the Office of Security Operations, to Congress. Now what had happened was, he, the system administrator that also was involved in those sexual-harassment incidences, and two other people were writing each other up for tens of thousands of dollars in performance bonuses. This was around the time that the DHS test results leaked, where 95% of the test results showed that the TSA was failing to find test objects. Well, Kelly Hoggan, the same person I submitted to Congress, he was writing himself up for multiple $10,000 awards. I submitted that complaint to Congress. I submitted that complaint to our agency’s chief counsel. Let that sink in. I submitted that complaint to the agency’s chief counsel, and nothing happened. The agency for the longest time said that, “No those figures are wrong, it wasn’t $90,000, it really wasn’t $90,000.” And one of our persons actually sat with our former chief of staff, a guy by the name of Alan Metzler, and said this is what’s going on. Mr. Metzler had a call with the report and said, “No, it wasn’t $90,000 it was much lower, it was much lower.” Well, after I testified before Congress in the May 12th hearing that TSA administrator Neffenger went before Congress, Chairman Jason Chaffetz had all the data that showed that Kelly Hoggan had over $90,000 in bonuses. So I had sent this information to former TSA administrator Peter Neffenger. I had sent this information about that, and performance bonus abuses, to my agency’s chief counsel, and they never contacted me. Again, they never acknowledged me. Then I went to Congress. Then they tried to say it wasn’t that amount. Finally Congress subpoenaed that information, used the power of Congress. And then what happened? It was $90,000, it was the amount I said the whole time that the agency tried to cover it up. Those examples are exactly why the public has no trust in the TSA, because they lie and they cover it up.
Jeff: To what extent is the Department of Homeland Security exercising any kind of real oversight on TSA and how is their behavior been consistent with what you’ve been talking?
Andrew: An interesting question. I actually sent a lot of that information to the DHS Inspector General himself, John Roth, and from what I’m told – he did not communicate with me, so I need to be upfront about this – is when they conducted their investigation, their response was such that the agency, while the optics of it was terrible, Kelly Hoggan did not violate any law or policy because the policies were so poorly written in the TSA. So what had happened was, coincidentally in the May 12th hearing where Inspector General Roth and TSA administrators testified before Congress, one of the representatives even talked about the smurfing of tens of thousands of dollars of bonuses – in other words breaking it up in parts in such a manner as to evade certain reporting requirements. Because as a senior executive, your salary is capped at what the Vice President of the United States can make. You can’t make more than that. But what they did was they coded it, as far as like relocation and retention bonus, and this and that, as opposed to like a salary-type payment. And it was dishonest. At the end of the day it was dishonest. So I did report that to the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General’s office, but according to their office, they could not prosecute Kelly Hoggan because our agency policies were so poorly written, that they could not prove that he did something illegal or broke a policy.
Jeff: How do you expect this to play out for you, Andrew?
Andrew: You know, there’s a part of me that believes it’s not going to play out for me very well. Meaning, eventual retaliation. But you know, I know this may sound difficult for your listeners to understand, I was raised very strictly by my mother and father. My father was a marine, he was a former law enforcement officer. And you know, I grew up as an Army Ranger. And you know, as an officer, where it’s about the bigger picture. It’s not about you. It’s about integrity. And so if I don’t have the strength of character to stand up and say enough is enough, then God forbid something else is going to happen, something worse. We’re going to say everything’s hunky-dory, and next thing you know, a huge terrorist incident is going to occur, and we’re all going to look back in the rearview mirror and say how did this occur? Well, if all this stuff occurred, because we have the wrong people in the wrong place. You know, it’s like if people cheat on their taxes, if people give themselves bonuses when they shouldn’t, when people take shortcuts and have ethical problems in one area of their life, they’re going to take shortcuts in other areas of their lives. So I first feel very strongly that the American public deserves ethical, competent leaders that will do the right thing, even if it means that there will be retaliation against them. I have spoken with a lot of the members of the Somali community, and many people thought I was wrong, I should’ve shut my mouth and shouldn’t have said anything, and let this whole thing with the racial incident, racial profile, blow over. But I couldn’t do it, partially because I saw my own mother, who was this Japanese and dual citizen, some of the things that she grew up in, and some of the racism she had to endure as a Japanese-American citizen, especially after World War II. And at the end of the day, I asked people of the Somali community what will this do to the relationship. And every single one of them said that they were disappointed, but what they said was that they felt so good that I had the courage, I guess you could say, to report this, because they want to be assured that if there is, there are instances of racial profiling, that someone will stand up and say, “No, I’m not going to do that.” And I think I might even have sent you, I received a letter from the executive director of CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations)] thanking me, from Washington, DC. And I received a plaque from the Minnesota chapter of CAIR where all the Somali imams, elders, and community leaders signed that plaque and thanked me for what I did. And that plaque, and that picture, hangs in my office to this day.
Jeff: And finally Andrew, just about out of time, how does all of this play into the public safety? How does this impact the safety of the flying public as it relates to the work that TSA does?
Andrew: Well, not good, and here’s why. You could argue, I can argue the case that if you have the wrong people in the wrong positions, and they were there because of either nepotism or because they knew someone, but they weren’t competent enough to be there, they’re not going to be the right person to stand up and do the right thing when we are under attack. So in other words, when the difficult thing occurs, if they’re the wrong person serving in that leadership position, then a less than desirable response from the government will occur. And, you know, the other aspect is, there are no secrets. I mean besides me talking about this in public and the media, everyone in the field knows this is what’s going to happen. But the challenge with our agency is, the TSA believes everything evolves around the mothership. So in other words, the USS Enterprise in Washington, DC, is everything about what’s great with the TSA, but we seem to lose the fact that if a TSA person is going to thwart an attack, it’s not going to come from the TSA headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. It’s going to occur at the tip of the spear at an airport, not from a staff member at TSA headquarters, not from the TSA administrator, not from the assistant administrator, not from this grandiose executive who’s more worried about image than anything else. It’s going to happen from a regular Joe, or regular Jane, on the ground that finds that bomb. And until we adopt that culture, we adopt really what the Marine Corps talks about, “You’re always a rifleman first.” That’s what we need to get back to, but we can’t do it when our morale is rock-bottom, because we have executives who think about themselves, and who will climb on the backs of their employees to get ahead and that’s the bottom line.
Jeff: Andrew Rhoades, I thank you so much for spending time with us and telling us this story.
Andrew: Yes sir, I appreciate the opportunity to be heard.
Jeff: Thank you. Thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast, I’m Jeff Schechtman.
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Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from lines (TSA).