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Office Of Special Counsel Addresses DOT Whistleblower Allegations

The Office of Special Counsel recently sent a letter to the President detailing findings and recommendations regarding allegations of a substantial and specific danger to public safety made by employees of the Department of Transportation.

The Office of Special Counsel recently sent a letter to the President detailing findings and recommendations regarding allegations of a substantial and specific danger to public safety made by employees of the Department of Transportation.

The whistleblowers, Gabriel D. Bruno, former manager of the Orlando Flight Standards District Office and Dorvin Hagen, a former supervisory safety inspector of the Orlando FSDO, alleged that:
(1) In the Spring of 2001, management officials abruptly cancelled a program re-examining approximately 2,000 mechanics who received airframe and power plant (A&P) mechanic certificates under fraudulent conditions, and;
(2) Management of the Southern Region FSDO failed to adequately staff the AirTran Certificate Management Unit, which provides certification and monitors air carriers to ensure compliance with aviation safety regulations and procedures. DOT’s Office of Inspector General investigated the allegations and substantiated them in part.

The A&P certificates in question were issued by St. George Aviation. In May 1999, the owner and an employee of St. George were convicted in federal court of fraud and conspiracy for their mismanagement of the A&P certificate program from 1995 to 1999. During that period, St. George issued about 2,000 certificates under fraudulent conditions including issuing certificates without any examination at all.

The OIG investigation revealed that FAA cancelled the re-examination program after only 130 mechanics were re-examined based on (1) an opinion from the regional counsel’s office that it was “merely speculation that the balance of the approximately 1,228 certificate holders identified for re-examination had not received a valid test;” and (2) advice from the regional air safety regulation branch that because two years had passed since St. George’s closure and there was a pass-rate of 79 percent for the mechanics who were re-examined, there was “no conclusive measurable impact on aviation safety and the flying public.”

The OIG disagreed and recommended that FAA take steps to re-examine the remaining 1,228 mechanics who received certificates from St. George under suspect conditions. Initially, FAA did not identify what steps had been taken in response to the recommendation. In a supplemental report, the OIG provided information reflecting that FAA was taking steps to re-examine all mechanics who received certificates from St. George dating back to May 1995.

Subsequently, some of the suspect certificate holders challenged the legality of the re-examination program. In response, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida issued a preliminary injunction stopping the re-examinations. The program has been suspended pending reconsideration of the injunction by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

The OIG also found that “there were considerable staffing issues in the Orlando FSDO” from 1998 to 2001. However, the OIG did not find evidence that the staffing shortage in the AirTran CMU could be attributed to any deliberate act or omission by the Southern Region FSD managers, nor did it find that the shortage created a substantial and specific danger to public safety. Information provided by the whistleblowers and the OIG establishes that the shortage that existed from 1998 to 2001 has since been rectified, and the AirTran CMU, now classified as a Certificate Management Office, is currently adequately staffed.

The Special Counsel determined that the agency’s reports contain all the information required by statute and the agency’s findings appear reasonable.

“However, OSC remains concerned that the re-examination process has not yet been completed. In view of the serious concerns that remain regarding the re-examination program, the Special Counsel recommends follow-up with the agency to determine the status of the litigation and the steps the agency is taking to complete the reexaminations.”

Special Counsel Scott J. Bloch said, “Nothing could be more central to the nation’s overall security and the well-being of our citizenry than aviation safety of which the aviation mechanics and inspectors form a critical link. Thanks to the efforts of the whistleblowers, a problem was identified and is being corrected. OSC takes these and all disclosures very seriously.”

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47