A top Transportation Safety Administration security official at Orlando International Airport breached security by escorting the daughter of another senior security official through a line without having her showing any identification, according to a complaint filed Wednesday by a Tampa law firm.
The daughter of Acting Director of Federal Security Sean SanRoman “was not properly screened” Aug. 26 while going through a TSA pre-check location with TSA security official Ariel Suarez, according to a narrative filed with the complaint.
The complaint was filed with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General on behalf of Felicita Alicea, who works at the airport and is a shop steward with the American Federation of Government Employees Local 556, which represents TSA employees throughout Florida. Alicea is represented by attorney Natalie Khawam and her Whistleblower Law Firm, which is seeking whistleblower protection out of concern about retaliation.
The TSA is part of the Department of Homeland Security.
“First, she did not show documentation when she was going through the checkpoint,” Alicea said in the complaint, which does not name the daughter. “Ariel Suarez abused his authority to get her through the screening checkpoint by flashing his badge and allowing her through without proper identification.”
The incident is caught on a 14-second video showing Suarez escorting the woman through a TSA checkpoint at Orlando International.
Alicea also alleges that the woman violated security because she was at locations in the airport she didn’t have clearance for — a classroom where classified information was presented and on the tarmac. Alicea said video of these incidents apparently was erased.
TSA spokeswoman Sari Koshetz, given a copy of the video last month, said then that the incident did not represent a security breach.
SanRoman’s daughter “was properly identified by Ariel Suarez, she was properly screened going through the checkpoint, she was properly escorted at all times by either Ariel or by Sean as both have escort privilege,” Koshetz said in an email to the Tribune Sept. 21. “She was present in a TSA classroom and on the tarmac and is allowed to be there under escort, which she was. This was not a security breach or incident.”
Koshetz’ comments came before Alicea’s complaint was sent to Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General. Mark Howell, another TSA spokesman, said Wednesday the agency had no comment. Arlen Morales, a spokesman for the Office of Inspector General, said the office does not comment on the status of cases before it.
In the complaint, Alicea describes why she believes the incidents represent a security breach. Suarez was indeed carrying an escort badge, she said, but added, “we are not allowed to escort through the PreCheck lane; this is a violation of Chapter 2 of the PreCheck standard operating procedures.”
The incident was also a violation of Travel Document Checker standard operation procedures, Alicea alleges. According to TSA documents, under the Travel Document Checker program, TSA security personnel are required to check tickets, ticket confirmations, standby passenger authorizations, priority verification cards, boarding passes, gate passes, employee ID cards and other similar documents for anyone entering what are known as “sterile areas” — secure sections of airports like the ones involved in the complaint.
Those entering such areas are required to show government-issued identification or identifications issued by an airport or air carrier allowing access to sterile areas.
Alicea added she was told by an unnamed TSA employee that “video that covered the footage of Mr. SanRoman, Ariel Suarez, and the daughter entering the training department from the Tarmac was no longer there. That means it was deleted on the day in question ... there are other officers who are aware of this security breach, but they are afraid to come forward and use their names due to potential retaliation from management.”
The situation represents a double standard, Alicea said in her complaint.
“When an officer lets a passenger though the PreCheck lane who is not PreCheck-certified, the officer is subjected to disciplinary action,” according to the complaint. “How is it that officers are being punished for these types of incidents but our management team has done worse and it is not considered a security breach or incident?”
Attorney Khawam said she and Alicea have had several telephone conversations with Susan Hackworth, the Whistleblower Ombudsman for Homeland Security.
“Our TSA Officers are there to serve and protect us, yet these high ranking TSA directors disregarded and violated the safety and security of the American people,” Khawam said.