WASHINGTON – Some senior officials at the Federal Air Marshal service made fun of veterans, homosexuals and minorities, creating what employees described as an unpleasant work environment at an agency with a mission that requires operating mostly under the radar, government investigators found.
One example of discriminatory behavior described in a report from the Homeland Security Department inspector general was a mock "Jeopardy!" game board in the Orlando field office. The game designated categories for veterans, women, blacks, Hispanics and homosexuals with derogatory titles, like "Our Gang" for black employees. The report did not go into further detail about the game, only describing it as "extremely offensive." The game's creators do not work at the agency anymore.
In the report, expected to be released Thursday, the inspector general found that while many employees perceived unfair treatment regarding assignments and promotion, there is not a culture of widespread discrimination and retaliation across the whole agency. It also found that the problems in Orlando never affected the agency's mission. But the perceptions, the report said, were so "extensive" that the inspector general determined they could not be dismissed.
Federal Air Marshal Service Director Robert Bray described the "Jeopardy!" board as "egregious and despicable." Bray told The Associated Press that as soon as the agency's leadership found out about it, there was immediate action: Two of the employees responsible left and the other was fired.
This is not the first time the Federal Air Marshal Service has come under fire. After the post-9/11 expansion, marshals protested that their anonymity hadn't been adequately protected, as agents were required to check in at airport ticket counters, and in most cases display oversized credentials. Until about 2007, it was required that marshals wear a jacket and tie on all flights, even those filled with tourists headed for Disney World. They also were instructed to stay in designated hotels, where they had to display their marshal credentials to secure a discounted rate.
Since then, policies have changed. "I can't talk about specific policies, but I can say we have a very strong program to protect anonymity," Bray said.
Employees interviewed anonymously for the January 2012 inspector general report blamed the discrimination and retaliation in part on the clique-like culture of former members of the Secret Service who were hired en masse after 9/11 to populate the agency. Employees believe that air marshal managers who were previously in the Secret Service created their own culture in the agency and are not held accountable for their actions.
Many of the former Secret Service officials and others who joined the air marshals in the early days have since left the agency, a Transportation Security Agency spokeswoman said.
Bray, a 20-year veteran of the Secret Service, said there is now a "culture of accountability" within the agency, and everyone is held to the same standard. He said there are 36 working groups within the agency that focus, for example, on quality of life, promotion standards and scheduling.
On 9/11, there were 33 air marshals. To grow to the thousands the agency has now, officials turned to former law enforcement officials from other government agencies in addition to the Secret Service, including police departments, the Bureau of Prisons, the Border Patrol and the military. The inspector general found that melding the different cultures of so many different law enforcement agencies proved to be a challenge.
"The Inspector General found no evidence of widespread discrimination or retaliation in the Federal Air Marshal Service and noted that these challenges do not interfere with the mission of the agency," the Transportation Security Administration -- the air marshals' parent agency -- said in a statement. "Through working groups, listening sessions and advisory councils, (Federal Air Marshal Service) leadership has demonstrated its commitment to improving communications within the workforce."