March 24th, 2010
03:35 PM ET
10 years ago

TSA nominee faces questions about unionizing airport screeners

President Obama's TSA nominee said Wednesday that he supports unionization for airport screeners.

President Obama's TSA nominee said Wednesday that he supports unionization for airport screeners.

Washington (CNN) - Washington (CNN) - President Barack Obama's second nominee to head the Transportation Security Administration side-stepped questions Wednesday about whether he supports unionizing the nation's 40,000 airport screeners, but acknowledged the president's support for unionization of screeners and said any such plan should be done in a way that would not hurt national security.

Treading lightly on a topic that helped to derail the president's first nominee, Robert Harding likened his role to those of presidential appointees who are advising the president on closing Guantanamo Bay or allowing gays in the military.

"My recommendations would be very unbiased, they would be very factual and I think that's what I owe the secretary (of Homeland Security) and the president," Harding said.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Connecticut, pressed Harding on the topic, noting that military advisers were doing a review "geared on how best to implement the decision" of the president. "Is that essentially what you're saying, that's what you're going to do here?"

"Yes, Mr. Chairman, and make a recommendation to the secretary and the president," Harding said.

Administration officials said Wednesday night that Harding still has not made a decision on whether he supports unionizing the workforce and disputed a suggestion that his remarks signaled his support.

The unionization issue has been a flashpoint between some Democrats and Republicans. Sen. James DeMint, R-South Carolina, put a hold on the first nominee, Erroll Southers, after Southers declined to say whether he supported unionization of screeners. Southers eventually withdrew his name from consideration after another controversy erupted involving a decades-old personnel matter.

DeMint and other committee members said granting certain union rights to TSA screeners will jeopardize security by making the agency less nimble. Negotiated contracts could prevent managers from quickly moving union personnel and resources, they said.

Supporters of unions said contracts can protect workers while maintaining security, adding that most other federal law enforcement agencies, including the U.S. Border Patrol, have been unionized.

During the election, then-candidate Obama wrote a letter to union leaders promising to support unionization of screeners if elected.

Also at Wednesday's hearing, Harding acknowledged "making mistakes" when a company he formed overbilled the government in 2004.

At issue is a contract that Harding's company - Harding Security Associates - signed with the Defense Department in early 2004 to provide 40 interrogators and debriefers rapidly in Iraq.

Within four months of his firm starting work on the contract, Harding said, the government decided to end the contract.

"I then faced 40 individuals who were now without work," the nominee said, adding that some of them he had lured away from other jobs, including the CIA.

Harding said he told his employees "that I would take care of them, and that I would negotiate and work with the government to provide severance payments." The total severance payments came to about $800,000, Harding said.

"When I went to claim it from the DIA [the Defense Intelligence Agency]," government auditors "recognized that I did not have a policy on that, that I had not negotiated with the government for severance, I had not provided the government my plan for severance ... and therefore it was not allowed, that $800,000."

Harding said that government auditors subsequently admitted "there were mistakes on both sides."

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she felt misled by a White House explanation of the events. The White House compared $2.4 million in disputed charges that included the $800,000 in severance payments to the $53 million potential value of the contract, instead of the $6 million value of the work.

"Of the $6 million that HSA was paid, $2.4 million was [in] question. That's a pretty high percentage. The White House, in talking to me about this issue, compared it to $53 million, but that's not what was at stake here at all, and I thought the White Houses comparison was pretty misleading," Collins said.

An independent investigation concluded that no fraud was involved. And ultimately, HSA reached a settlement with the government, with HSA paying back $1.8 million of the disputed $2.4 million.

Harding said he learned from his mistake. He said the mistake caused him to add an accounting operation and otherwise professionalize the business, eventually increasing it in size from 60 people in 2004 to about 400 people when he sold the business last year.

Following the hearing, Sen. Collins said that Harding "adequately addressed my concerns regarding" the contracts. "Before making a final determination, however, I want to review additional information in order to ensure that all relevant data regarding the nominee have been thoroughly examined," she

Filed under: TSA
soundoff (20 Responses)
  1. bob

    oh my god another bit of kowtowing to unions by obama

    March 24, 2010 03:37 pm at 3:37 pm |
  2. Chuck Anaheim, Ca

    Heck yes, thats what the laws of this country allow if employees choose to do.

    March 24, 2010 03:37 pm at 3:37 pm |
  3. El Gordo

    It is the right of American workers to organize themselves. This is no big deal. Federal employees may not strike, of course. If we had more unions, we'd have a lot fewer problems in this country.

    March 24, 2010 03:38 pm at 3:38 pm |
  4. Walter

    Good for him. Justice in the workplace is not a threat to American values and the American way of life. It is an integral part of them.

    March 24, 2010 03:43 pm at 3:43 pm |
  5. Tom

    That's all we need to add to the downfall of this country. More unionization of government employees. It's a license for apathy.

    March 24, 2010 03:43 pm at 3:43 pm |
  6. Another Hold Up

    Don;t mention unions when you have to go through republicans to get confirmed. Republicans are putting national security at risk by holding up these nominees.

    March 24, 2010 03:45 pm at 3:45 pm |
  7. Realist

    Obama wanting unions? Gee really? Again forcing his agenda where its not needed so he can control another group of people who vote like lemmings and follow the union leader. What a joke

    March 24, 2010 03:52 pm at 3:52 pm |
  8. Obama Victim

    Obozo in bed with the unions?? seems about right. Looks like I will be driving next vacation.

    March 24, 2010 04:02 pm at 4:02 pm |
  9. S.B. Stein E.B. NJ

    Watch that Republican Sen. James DeMint blocks the nominee again and then blames Obama for not puting someone in place to run the TSA. It would be just fitting.

    March 24, 2010 04:05 pm at 4:05 pm |
  10. miken

    Oh great another union to paralize the country when they demand more pay and benefits. Does anyone remember when flying was fun? It used to be a real pleasure – we should put more money into doing whatever it takes to get back to the good ol' days.

    March 24, 2010 04:06 pm at 4:06 pm |
  11. Sniffit

    Oh boy. Here it comes. A veritable tsunami of scared stupid from the conservatives. Run, people, not pass go, do not collect $ not bother to grab your galloshes or raincoats. Just run from this article as fast as you can and don't look back or you will be drowned in the deluge of their delusional drivel....

    March 24, 2010 04:07 pm at 4:07 pm |
  12. Joe

    Maybe they should send them to "Charm School". Person for person, the rudest, most inept government employees in the entire USA. Leave early and drive.

    March 24, 2010 04:18 pm at 4:18 pm |
  13. Doug,lib jersey

    Anyone who is honest about how Unions work knows that every terrorist is drooling over this.

    March 24, 2010 04:20 pm at 4:20 pm |
  14. Capt. Snarky

    Why the hell not, we already gave em free health care. Perhaps you'd like a side of free housing with that meal?

    March 24, 2010 04:26 pm at 4:26 pm |
  15. jeff jackson, alabama

    That's just great. Now if one of them doesn't
    do their job responsibly it will be virtually
    impossible to fire them. Ever hear of a union
    member being replaced ? Doesn't happen

    March 24, 2010 04:26 pm at 4:26 pm |
  16. Most Republicans - Wrong about everything, Wrong for America (and GW Bush was the worst President ever)

    Great. Just what we need. A Union ruining another industry.

    March 24, 2010 04:26 pm at 4:26 pm |
  17. JES

    Another way to increase ailine tickets.

    March 24, 2010 04:29 pm at 4:29 pm |
  18. JK Ashburn, VA

    Most TSA folks already suffer from a bad attitude. Unionization certainly won't make them any more customer-friendly.

    But of course, this administration has already shown its disdain for government customers and taxpayers. They only care about their political patrons such as unions, trial lawyers, and government bureaucrats.

    March 24, 2010 04:42 pm at 4:42 pm |
  19. Dar

    WHAT bring in the union, no way.......................... WHY do you think that Odumbo picked this little weasel. Now the union gets better HC than all of us and we get to pay for it too.
    2010/2012 REAL Change is coming

    March 24, 2010 04:49 pm at 4:49 pm |
  20. Kevin in Ohio

    And the Big Government continues to spend our money..... do these people really need to unionize when they are paid at much higher levels than similar private sector jobs? Or do they need the higher pay to fatten the Union Bosses' pockets?

    March 24, 2010 04:52 pm at 4:52 pm |