Attacks on screeners could endanger passengers, TSA workers say


written by: Deborah Sherman and Nicole Vap posted by: Jeffrey Wolf photojournalist & editor Anna Hewson Date last updated: 4/3/2009 11:42:09 AM Smaller Larger Print Article Close Page
Associated Images
Associated Images
Associated Images
Associated Images
Associated Images
DENVER - Some security screeners at Denver International Airport say they're harassed, threatened and bullied by their managers so often during work, they have trouble focusing on screening passengers and luggage, an investigation by 9Wants to Know has learned.


"If their minds aren't totally on their job because they're worried about management, they're worried about what managers are doing, lives are at stake," John Noble said.

He worked as a lead screener at the airport until he was fired last year.

"What I don't miss is going to work and having a target on my back every single day. And when I say every day, I mean every day," Noble said.

Noble has a current Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaint against the agency citing discrimination and harassment.

A scathing internal report of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in Denver obtained by 9NEWS confirms the allegations made by more than 20 current and former screeners.

The report finds that screeners think the management and leadership teams in Denver are "retaliatory," "inconsistent," "lack integrity" and "antagonist."

Screeners have "lost faith" in their leaders ability to manage the security agency at DIA, according to the report.

"It's already a stressful job and we also don't need to be terrorized from the inside," Pam Helsper, a former supervisor for the TSA, said.

Helsper, who was a supervisor for four years, claims managers made false accusations against her after she filed a formal complaint and didn't let up until she left.

"They're very patient. If it takes them six months, two years, eventually they get you," Helsper said.

She filed two complaints with the TSA human resources department which were dismissed. She has also filed a federal lawsuit against the TSA citing a hostile work environment and sexual harassment.

Former TSA supervisor Ingrid Cartinelle says she was targeted by managers after she refused to play along with what she called "high school" games.

"They were just allowed and permitted to do whatever they wanted to. To bully you, harass you, everything you could think of, they did," Cartinelle said.

In July 2005, Cartinelle says an employee placed a dead rat in her employee locker that was behind security in an area that could be accessed only by TSA managers. Cartinelle, who has a phobia of rodents, threw up, had a panic attack and passed out when she saw the dead rat, according to Denver Police reports and witnesses.

In October 2006, someone shattered Cartinelle's windshield and spiked her tires and another employee's tires when they were parked in an employee parking lot at DIA, according to police reports.

Two months later, Cartinelle and TSA screener Gary Heck were attacked with pepper spray inside a stairwell while they were leaving work at the airport. The attacker also grabbed Cartinelle by the neck and tried to pull her up the stairs. The attacker ran away after she screamed and other airport employees ran over to help, according to witnesses and police reports.

The incidents were reported to Denver Police, which investigated but did not find the culprit. The Department of Homeland Security took over the investigation involving the dead rat but never learned who left it inside the secure area.

"I think it was another act of violence toward me to make me quit and move on," Cartinelle said.

She filed suit against the TSA last year, claiming the agency didn't do anything about the harassment.

"That kind of behavior was scary, immature and violated every government and TSA policy on workplace violence that exists," said a current TSA employee who asked 9NEWS not to reveal his name for fear of his job.

The current screener says it's hard to concentrate on work with so much mental stress going on and believes that screeners are not finding dangerous weapons because of it.

"I don't know how anybody could not be impacted working a stressful environment like that with all of these other issues going on," aviation security consultant Jeff Price said. "These people have an extraordinarily important job. We need their attention on our luggage, we need their attention on people coming through the checkpoint and we need them to be better."

Screeners failed to find a knife taped on an ankle and an explosive taped to a person's back under a heat pack worn by federal security testers when they went through screening in the south checkpoint at DIA in January, according to multiple sources.

The mistakes were human errors and two screeners were decertified on the spot, according to sources. The TSA won't confirm the test results because it's classified information. TSA DIA screeners also failed to find improvised explosive devices or IEDs smuggled behind security by testers in 2007.

Internal report: "He who accuses first, wins"

The internal Denver TSA report says the workforce feels that "character assassination is a primary means of upward mobility."

"They didn't care whether there was any basis to the rumors," Heck said. "We were complete targets of management, we were targets of rumors and character assassination and smearing. It was just a terrible out there. It's a very, very terrible place to work."

Heck quit the agency in April 2007.

"I'd had it. I couldn't deal with it anymore. The level of incompetence and unprofessionalism from the upper management was unbearable," she said.

"The culture is one that really promotes a lot of underhanded, retaliatory action from people and doesn't really promote hard work and ethical behavior," said another current screener who also asked not to be identified.

Several current and former workers claim they have been falsely accused of sexual harassment. The TSA said it could not verify the information because of personnel issues and said they were not able to tell 9NEWS how many allegations of sexual harassment have been made inside the TSA in Denver.

One current supervisor, who also asked not to be identified, says employees stay for the pay and benefits and will play politics with managers to get promoted.

"People sell their souls for money or a position," he said.

Internal report: Top Denver TSA leader left in dark

The internal report says lower-level managers and leaders work to sabotage the top TSA leaders in Denver.

The federal security director at DIA in 2006, Pat Alhstrom, talked to the committee who prepared the report. He told committee members that "he did not get all the information that he needed to understand what was going on in the workforce because what he did learn was excessively filtered."

The current federal security director in Denver is Bill Allen and the deputy director is Al Myers. They refused to answer any questions about morale or the allegations made about their agency. The TSA would not provide their exact salaries, saying only that Myers and Allen earn between $84,050 and $130,283.

TSA spokesperson Andrea McCauley also declined to make anyone available to 9NEWS to talk about its morale and attrition problem.

The attrition rate in Denver was 16.6 percent in 2008 while nationally the TSA attrition rate was 19.1 percent. TSA has been rated among the worst agencies to work for in federal government in its "Best Places to Work" survey released in May 2007.

"TSA has multiple venues in which an employee can file a grievance and seek resolution," McCauley said in a statement. "TSA Denver employs over 850 staff members and in 2008 the ombudsman's office received no workplace complaints concerning harassment and discrimination."

A Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General (DHS OIG) report in May 2008 shows the problems may be nationwide.

"TSA employees... have criticized the agency for discrimination, selective hiring practices, nepotism, management misconduct and other questionable activities," according to the DHS OIG.

As a result, the OIG report found low morale "could adversely affect the effectiveness of TSA's security screening function."

The OIG says TSA employees are concerned that the agency files more formal complaints at rates significantly higher than other federal agencies of comparable size.

In a response to the OIG, then acting Secretary Kip Hawley disputed the reports findings. Hawley said the complaint numbers were not fairly compared to other agencies, and that the OIG had no proof or facts to support its claim that safety was being jeopardized.

Hawley also said the TSA has been proactively identifying and addressing employee workplace problems, issues and concerns.

The internal report at DIA offered solutions and resolutions to the multiple morale and management problems. However, employees say they don't believe that any of the solutions were ever implemented at DIA. The report cost more than $60,000 in taxpayer money.

The TSA in Seattle was recently overhauled after numerous Seattle Times reports about the agency's mismanagement problems.

Screeners in Denver who talked to 9NEWS say DIA needs a housecleaning too, starting with top leaders Bill Allen and Al Myers.

"We could be a shining star here in Denver, but not with this current management team that they have," Helsper said.

If you have any story tips, please email Deborah.Sherman@9NEWS.com



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