The Congressman Flipped Out
Rep. Harold Rogers' Monterey airport outburst may have violated federal law, but no charges will be pressed.
Thursday, May 15, 2003
When US Rep. Harold Rogers of Kentucky threatened to fire two federal baggage screeners at the Monterey Peninsula Airport on April 27, he may have been in violation of federal law.
However, the agency that oversees the screeners, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), has reviewed the incident--which made national news last week in the Washington Post and Associated Press wire--and declined to pursue the matter.
Rogers, a member of Congress since 1980, is the chairman of the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, which controls funding for the TSA. He has been quoted in the news saying that the screener workforce needs to be thinned. In Monterey, he threatened to do just that, pointing at screeners and saying, "I'm your boss's boss. You work for me," according to a local police officer who witnessed the incident.
Through a spokeswoman, Rogers has disputed the claims made in an incident report by TSA screener Michael Baber, who complained that the Kentucky congressman became "verbally abusive" when Baber asked an American Eagle employee to weigh one of the congressman's bags because it seemed to be over the 50-pound weight limit.
"At this point, passenger Harold Rogers became very belligerent," the report says. "He told me that it was not my job to tell the ticket agent to search his bag for weight.
"He then very strongly stated that he is on the TSA Committee and that he was my boss and by law I was not to ask the airlines to check his bag for weight," the report says. "Passenger Rogers then loudly states that he signs my paycheck and that tomorrow he was going to have my wages lowered. Then he goes on to say that he was going to have me fired."
When asked about the incident, Leslie Cupp, a spokeswoman for the congressman, said, "Those allegations are completely inaccurate."
But an eyewitness says that, in fact, the congressman made quite a scene in the airport terminal, and threatened Baber and his supervisor.
Sgt. Mario Villarreal, an officer with the Del Rey Oaks Police Department, was working in the gate area on the morning of April 27. (In the aftermath of Sept. 11, local police agencies have provided officers at airport gates to bolster existing security and be available in the event that laws are broken.)
According to Villarreal, a "discussion" among Rogers, Baber and a TSA supervisor started out at the American Eagle desk, where passengers check in. When Rogers came into the secure gate area--in the "wanding" zone where travelers are delicately frisked--Rogers approached TSA supervisor Priscilla Chavez. "He came up and he just went off the wall," Villarreal says.
The officer says that Rogers "blared" about being a congressman, how he was the committee chairman and that it was not up to TSA employees to ask the airlines to weigh bags. "He went on and on and on in a very loud voice," Villarreal says.
Villarreal says Rogers threatened them three or four times, telling the screeners it would take "one phone call" and he'd have their jobs. "He threatened to fire them," he says. "He was pointing his finger at each individual and telling them they could be fired."
It got loud enough that Villarreal stood up to let Rogers know a police officer was in the room. "He didn't care. He was making such a big show," Villarreal says.
Villarreal says Rogers could be heard over the whining turbines of an airplane warming up on the tarmac. Rogers then told Chavez he would not board his plane until she had called in all the TSA screeners to tell them only to screen bags, not weight them.
"That [the demand to call in all the screeners] concerned me because that was going to delay the flight," he recalls. "Those people are paying customers. They have a right to get on that plane."
Villarreal says Rogers relented when Chavez said she'd discuss the matter with Baber.
"She did a helluva good job," he says. "She was just trying to defuse the situation."
After Rogers boarded his plane, the local TSA manager, Alexander Kerekes, was notified and the incident report went up the chain of command. Rogers' office said last week that the congressman requested an internal investigation.
Although the officers are on duty with normal law enforcement authority, Sgt. Villarreal did not arrest Rogers or file a report on the matter, as no local laws were found to be broken.
However, there is a federal law, revised on Oct. 1, 2002, that protects TSA screeners from such behavior.
Under Title 49 of the Code of Federal Regulations: "No person may interfere with, assault, threaten, or intimidate screening personnel in the performance of their screening duties."
Despite the fact that threats by a senior U.S. congressman to fire a federal employee might be considered an attempt to "threaten or intimidate," the matter is not being pursued further by government officials.
According to TSA's chief spokesman, Robert Johnson, the incident report went right to the top, to Admiral James M. Loy, who runs the TSA.
"The facts were reviewed by Admiral Loy and others in TSA leadership," Johnson says. "The case is closed."
Johnson was not familiar, however, with the federal code protecting screeners against threats and intimidation. Still, the TSA won't go further.
"I think we've said all we're going to say about this one," Johnson said. "We've taken a look at it and we're moving on."
Regardless of Rep. Rogers' bluster, 6,000 TSA screeners will be removed from the force by Sept. 30. The Monterey airport force of 37 screeners will be reduced by three, but Johnson says the reductions around the country may happen through normal employment "ebbs and flows."
Baber and Rogers did not respond to requests for comment.