August 3, 2008 - 9:00 pm
Charged with protecting commercial airlines, the Federal Air Marshal Service has ballooned since 2001. The conduct of some Las Vegas-based air marshals has been questionable, and critics say the offenders received less-than-appropriate punishments. Yet other agents who brought attention to perceived management problems have been severely disciplined. What do these incidents say about this law enforcement agency?
Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, at least six federal air marshals assigned to the Las Vegas office have been criminally and internally investigated for incidents including drunken driving, shooting a hole through a hotel room wall and leaving a loaded handgun in an airplane lavatory.
These offenses have gone largely unpunished, and the agents still work for the Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS), a Review-Journal investigation has found.
"What you’re seeing are symptoms of gross mismanagement," said Craig Sawyer, a former FAMS supervisor who resigned from the Las Vegas office in 2004. "You can’t let people who bring shame on the agency just sail."
In response to the newspaper’s findings, FAMS spokesman Nelson Minerly defended his agency.
The indiscretions of a handful of marshals "do not reflect the commitment and professionalism of the thousands of federal air marshals that protect our skies every day," he said.
But in interviews with the Review-Journal, current and former Las Vegas air marshals said the misconduct of some agents is indicative of larger systemic problems.
"If the public knew just how little punishment, if any, these individuals have received, they would be outraged," a current air marshal said on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
At the same time, the service has come down hard on marshals such as Sawyer who have been critical of agency policy.
The air marshal service, which is part of the Transportation Security Administration, won’t address any of the situations specifically. The agency won’t even reveal how many marshals it has in its 21 field offices.
"The anonymity of our (air marshals) is very important to our mission," said Mickey Marzigliano, a regional agency spokesman. "That’s the primary reason we don’t divulge details of investigations."
But if the goal is to keep a low profile, some air marshals haven’t made the grade. And Las Vegas isn’t the only city that’s had problems.
Air marshals in cities including Dallas, Chicago, Houston, and Orlando also have had brushes with the law, including convictions for solicitation to commit murder and drug trafficking, according to published reports.
James Carafano, a homeland security expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., said air marshals should be held to a higher standard of behavior.
"The job of an air marshal requires an enormously high degree of professionalism and needs to be done right," Carafano said. "You want to have a high level of confidence in your air marshals."
‘DON’T CALL THE POLICE’
Lisa Rutherford was in pain. Her car had just been rear-ended on Durango Drive. It was totaled. And Rutherford couldn’t move.
Michael Florez, the driver of the vehicle that hit hers that night three years ago, rushed to her side, but not to see whether she was hurt, Rutherford said.
"He didn’t ask if I was OK," she said. "He said, ‘Don’t call the police. I’m a cop. We don’t need to call anybody.’ "
It was late and Rutherford and Florez were alone on the dark road.
Rutherford insisted on calling 9-1-1.
After police and paramedics arrived, Rutherford, a casino manager, was taken to Spring Valley Hospital, where a police officer later came to tell her that Florez was a federal agent.
Back at the accident scene, Florez, an air marshal and former Marine with no prior law enforcement experience, told an officer he had drunk three beers before getting behind the wheel, according to a police report.
He refused to take a Breathalyzer test and was arrested on DUI charges.
The arrest report noted that Florez’s eyes were bloodshot, his breath smelled of alcohol, and his gait was unsteady.
No field sobriety tests were conducted, however, according to Florez, because his knees were banged up from the accident.
A blood test later showed that Florez’s blood-alcohol content exceeded the legal limit of 0.08 percent, according to a criminal complaint filed in Clark County Justice Court in June 2005.
Prior to trial, Florez’s attorney submitted a witness list with eight names, all fellow air marshals, court documents show. That list was later shortened to four. Florez described the marshals as potential character witnesses.
But the police officer who arrested him didn’t show up for court appearances, Florez said.
After his trial was postponed several times, Florez pleaded guilty to reckless driving in October 2005 and paid a $1,000 fine.
"We don’t reduce many (DUI) cases down to reckless driving," said Jim Miller, the district attorney who prosecuted the case. "There has to be a good reason for us to do that."
One of the reasons cited by Miller in court was that Florez’s blood wasn’t tested within two hours of the accident. The test was done 10 minutes after the two-hour mark. The other reason was that police hadn’t conducted field sobriety tests on Florez.
"They couldn’t produce the evidence that I was legally drunk," Florez said.
Following the incident, Florez got formal reprimands from his superiors and kept flying, he said.
David Knowlton, who headed the local air marshal field office from 2002 to 2006, said he stands by all disciplinary recommendations he made to supervisors in Washington, D.C., during his tenure.
"As far as I’m concerned, all situations were handled appropriately," Knowlton said.
Rutherford, who settled with Florez’s insurance company to cover her hospital bills, was surprised to learn that the driver who hit and injured her got off so lightly:
"He could have killed me, and all he got was a slap on the wrist. That blows me away."
‘EVERYONE MAKES MISTAKES’
The federal government was flooded with more than 200,000 applications for air marshal jobs in the weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
A program that previously employed a total of only 33 agents rapidly expanded its ranks to more than 5,000. The agency now has an annual budget of about $700 million.
The mission of air marshals is clear: Blend in with fellow passengers and help protect the skies against hostile acts.
Never allow another Sept. 11 to happen.
The agents brought in were supposed to be the best of the best, well-trained sharpshooters with a knowledge of terrorist behavior.
For better pay and a new challenge, Mark Murphy and Robert MacLean left the U.S. Border Patrol to become armed marshals on commercial flights.
In December 2001, the men were working a United Airlines flight from Washington’s Dulles Airport to Las Vegas.
About halfway through the flight, MacLean noticed a flight attendant and a teenage boy in animated conversation at the front of the plane.
He watched Murphy get up and join the discussion.
"He came back to his seat like everything was OK, so I assumed everything was OK," MacLean said.
Only later did MacLean and other marshals learn the reason for the commotion on the flight that day.
Murphy left his loaded service weapon, a .357-caliber semiautomatic pistol, in the airplane lavatory. The boy found the gun and handed it to the flight attendant.
According to an air marshal service handbook, the penalty for "reckless disregard for the safety of others" includes possible dismissal.
But Murphy didn’t miss a day of work, several former colleagues said. He even became a firearms instructor at an air marshal training center in Atlantic City.
Murphy, who is now assigned to the air marshal service’s Los Angeles field office, couldn’t be reached for comment.
Douglas Hladky, the first special agent in charge of the air marshal service’s Las Vegas office, downplayed the significance of what Murphy did, in a February 2002 memo to MacLean:
"Everyone makes mistakes," Hladky wrote. "Murphy, FAMs oversleeping/missing time. … FAM getting lost from his team in airport, etc."
The handling of the situation strikes former air marshal Gary Johnson Jr. as unusual.
Johnson said he was fired from the Las Vegas office in 2004 when the government learned a woman had taken out a protective order against him in Alaska in the 1990s.
"I disclosed it in my hiring process," Johnson said. "They were just looking to can certain people and not others."
In some cases, the air marshal service has had no choice but to fire an agent.
Jaime Aldaz lost his air marshal job after being convicted of a domestic violence charge in Las Vegas in 2007. The conviction meant he could no longer possess a firearm.
"It cost me my career," Aldaz said.
Other Las Vegas marshals also have had gun troubles.
In the wee hours of the morning in October 2004, air marshal David McCoy was handling his weapon during a layover in a hotel room in Arlington, Va., when the early morning silence was shattered by gunfire.
A bullet from McCoy’s weapon ripped a hole through a wall and landed in the bathroom.
Responding to McCoy’s call, officials from the nearby Federal Air Marshal Service office arrived on the scene.
So did officers from the Arlington Police Department.
"We responded to assist federal air marshals in an internal investigation," said Arlington police spokesman John Lyall. "We determined it was an accidental discharge and that it wasn’t criminal."
So, like the Murphy incident, the matter was handled behind closed doors.
The air marshal service suspended McCoy for one day without pay, according to marshals familiar with the internal investigation.
McCoy, reached at the Las Vegas field office, declined comment.
In April of this year, another marshal fired his gun, again in Arlington, this time during a fight near a night club.
When police investigated, each side in the scuffle blamed the other for what happened, Lyall said.
This much is known: Air marshals Eric Beaman and John Moya were losing the fight, police said, when Moya fired his service weapon in the air several times.
Reached by phone, Beaman declined to speak about the incident.
Moya and Beaman work out of a FAMS satellite bureau in Phoenix that reports to the Las Vegas field office.
About two months prior to the fight, Moya was charged with "extreme DUI" in Maricopa County on allegations he had a blood-alcohol limit of 0.15 percent or more.
Moya pleaded guilty last week to a lesser DUI charge and was sentenced to five years’ probation. He couldn’t be reached for comment.
Arlington police investigated the fight and the discharge of Moya’s weapon and turned their findings over to Arlington County Commonwealth’s Attorney Richard Trodden.
Trodden chose not to prosecute the case, Lyall said.
The prosecutor didn’t return phone calls from the Review-Journal.
HARDER ON CRITICS
When word spread that Mark Murphy had left his gun in an airplane lavatory, his partner, MacLean, was the one whose conduct was questioned by superiors.
Hladky, the special agent in charge of the Las Vegas office at the time, accused MacLean of making too much of the act. In the process, Hladky brought up what he saw as some of MacLean’s own deficiencies as an air marshal.
A vague reference to the Murphy incident in a USA Today article in August 2002 brought down more heat on MacLean.
"I was the easiest one to blame because I was flying with him," MacLean said. "It was the whole cover-up and protection of this guy that should be cause for alarm."
Eventually, MacLean would lose his job with the air marshal service. That was after he told a television reporter in 2003 that the agency, citing the cost of hotel stays, was temporarily eliminating assignments on cross-country and international flights.
MacLean said he took that step only after homeland security officials ignored his concerns that such cuts could compromise airline safety.
The plan to cut back on long-haul flights sparked congressional outrage and was eventually scrapped by the TSA, but the government claimed MacLean had revealed sensitive security information.
In October 2006, MacLean appealed his dismissal claiming he has whistle-blower protection. The appeal is pending.
Contrast MacLean’s fate with that of another Las Vegas air marshal who received a three-day suspension for giving sensitive information about his flight schedule to an airline gate agent with whom he was having an affair.
Congress is considering legislation that would add teeth to the 1994 Whistle-blower Protection Act. Critics of existing law say it is still too easy for government agencies to retaliate against whistle-blowers.
Other Las Vegas air marshals say they, too, were punished for trying to bring awareness to issues that bothered them.
Several marshals publicly complained in 2006 that they were required to meet a monthly quota of reports labeling certain airline passengers as suspicious. The agency denied that there was any kind of quota system.
Jimmie Bacco, a former air marshal, said he spoke out against agency policies before being fired in July 2005 while undergoing brain surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix.
Earlier that year, Bacco had complained that the air marshal service’s Las Vegas office was misrepresenting the number of flights its marshals were on by counting flights with two marshals as two separate flights.
Air marshal service officials earlier this year denied reports that less than 1 percent of commercial flights in the United States have marshals aboard.
Bacco, who was terminated after developing a work-related injury, is currently fighting his dismissal.
"There’s nobody who’s overseeing what they do," he said. "They don’t want to answer to anybody."
Knowlton said complaints from Bacco, MacLean, and others have no merit.
"There are some people who came disgruntled and probably still are disgruntled," he said.
But Sawyer, one of the original 33 air marshals and an ex-Navy SEAL with extensive counterterrorism training, doesn’t buy it.
He quit the FAMS after Knowlton berated him for helping to throw a videotaped bachelor party for a fellow agent at a local strip club. Before that, Sawyer complained to the TSA inspector general about working conditions in the Las Vegas field office. Among other things, Sawyer questioned the strict dress code for air marshals that required business attire on even the hottest days.
"They retaliate against those who disagree with them," Sawyer said. "As soon as the marshals they hired started seeing the place wasn’t going to run well, they got demoralized and left."
Contact reporter Alan Maimon at email@example.com or 702-383-0404.