WASHINGTON (CN) – Members of the House put the acting administrator of the Transportation Security Administration on notice Thursday to turn over information on whistleblower retaliation or face subpoena.
For two hours this morning, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform grilled TSA acting administrator Huban Gowadia over the agency’s ongoing investigations into abuses of power, mismanagement, employee intimidation and security failures.
Though the Office of Special Counsel has sought hundreds of pages of documentation regarding the investigations, Gowadia said that “unwritten” guidance from the Department of Homeland Security barred her agency from sharing the documents with the Congress.
Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz took a hard stance with Gowadia, bristling at her repeated claims that the unwritten guidance permitted her to withhold the documents under attorney-client privilege.
“You know what?” the Republican from Utah said. “You have a week from Friday, OK? A week from Friday or I issue a subpoena. And guess what? I don’t need a committee vote. I don’t need to ask a judge. I can do it all myself and I’m telling you here on national television, you will get a subpoena for that information.”
Chaffets said the documents must be submitted to the committee by March 10, and there must be a privilege log accompanying any records that are redacted.
Gowadia noted that privilege logs are a relatively new concept. “As of yesterday,” she said, “if we ever redact a piece of information from the [Office of Special Counsel], we will always accompany it with a privilege log that allows them to have more information than what has been redacted.”
Carolyn Lerner, special counsel to the Office of Special Counsel, said that TSA employees have filed more than 350 whistleblower complaints since 2012. In many of those cases, formal complaints had been so heavily redacted it made review next to impossible.
“It boils down to this,” Lerner said, “we don’t believe this [attorney-client] privilege applies for any document we request. We’re acting in the agency’s shoes. This is an investigation that Congress has asked us to conduct and it’s not appropriate to claim that privilege when producing documents for [the Office of Special Counsel].”
John Roth, inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security, also testified to the committee that the TSA had a long-standing history of withholding information by purposefully overclassifying information as “sensitive security information.”
As Roth and Lerner recapped their own difficulties with the TSA’s lack of cooperation, an increasingly incensed Chaffetz demanded Gowadia explain why the agency she heads refused to provide unredacted investigation documents.
“Tell me,” Chaffetz pushed. “Tell me who the attorneys are that tell you not to provide this Congress [with the documents]. I need specific names.”
Gowadia began to speak, but Chaffetz interrupted to ask for a headcount of TSA employees currently in the chamber. Upon counting seven individuals, Chaffetz laced into Gowadia.
“Get your butt up out of this committee and go get the names,” he said. “I want the names. We will go to the ends of the earth to protect whistleblowers, and we have this Office of Special Counsel who need 100 percent of that information. [Lerner] needs all of it, and I want the names of those at [the Department of Homeland Security] who are prohibiting people from giving that information to the OSC.”
Gowadia’s brow furrowed. As she began to respond, Chaffetz took the offensive again, asking what percentage of information she believes should be withheld from Congress.
“I don’t believe information should be withheld unless there are certain provisions like attorney-client privilege, and my hands are tied by department policy,” Gowadia responded. “I can’t take unilateral action because of the ripple effects across the department.
Chaffetz cut the administrator off before she could finish.
“I think we’ve established that that is so bogus, and you’re making it up,” he said. “But we’ve got whistleblowers that think they’re being retaliated against. I want you to stop hiding behind legalese. … We don’t see this problem at this magnitude anywhere other than the TSA.”