Quick..name one organization (other than the Mafia) where you can be involved in someone's demise and keep your job?
If you guessed the federal government, give yourself a gold star and move to the head of the class.
And by the way, we're not referring to the U.S. military. It goes without saying that armed forces personnel, in the course of their duties, are sometimes called upon to kill the enemy. No, we're talking about employees outside DoD, the intelligence community or federal law enforcement who contributed to accidental or preventable deaths, and managed to hang onto their civil service positions.
The most current (and egregious) example comes from the Veterans Administration. Congress and government investigators are currently looking into whistle blower allegations that staff and administrators at the Phoenix VA created secret waiting lists for veterans who were seeking care at that facility.
While the deception reduced patient backlogs at the facility--a key performance metric for administrators--it also kept vets waiting for needed care. Two physicians who exposed the practice claim as many as 40 veterans died while on the waiting list; others spent up to a year waiting for an appointment. Three senior administrators (including the hospital director) have been placed on administrative leave as the inquiry continues. Yesterday, the leader of the American Legion, the nation's largest veterans organization, called for the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary, retired Army General Eric Shinseki, and two senior aides.
Sadly, the VA doesn't have a monopoly on tolerating incompetence. An investigation by WPIX-TV in New York discovered the Federal Aviation Administration has retained "a number" of air traffic controllers whose actions contributed to 15 fatal crashes that claimed 54 lives. The string of deadly incidents cover more than 20 years (beginning in the late 1980s) and include the highly-publicized mid-air collision of a private plane and a sightseeing helicopter over the Hudson River in 2009.
During their probe, federal investigators discovered that controller assigned to monitor that airspace was involved in a personal phone call when the two aircraft collided:
"In its accident report, the National Transportation Safety Board stated that controller Carlyle Turner’s non-pertinent telephone conversation contributed to the crash. While on duty, Turner and an airport colleague had a conversation about a scheduled BBQ and a dead cat found earlier in the day on a runway. At one point in the more than two-minute call, the federally employed Turner even cracks a racial joke.
PIX 11 News found Carlyle Turner living a suburban lifestyle in Chesapeake, Virginia. He is now working out of the air traffic control tower at Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport, a frequent destination and fly-over zone for high performance aircraft from the military as well as commercial jetliners.
The story of Carlyle Turner resonates with Barry Newman. The Florida aviation attorney had a case from an October 26, 2009 flight where a Texas controller lost his focus, literally. “The controller was required by his FAA medical certificate to wear glasses while controlling traffic and he wasn’t wearing his glasses that day.”
The controller in the case, Mike Farrior, admitted to not having his glasses in a handwritten statement attained by PIX11 News. Additionally, Newman says his vision was not the only issue.
“The controller decided to set his preferences so that he had a bright blue screen which was the same color as the worst of the weather so the two blended together, where on a black background the worst of the weather would have stood out very brightly.”
In a federal lawsuit, attorneys argued that as a result the pilot flew into hazardous weather. The aircraft went down killing all four people on-board."
According to WPIX, the federal government has paid out at least $100 million in settlements or jury verdicts resulting from deaths in these--and other--crashes. Amazingly, Carlyle Turner, Mike Farrior and other controllers remain on the job, despite their actions that contributed to these deadly accidents.
But perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. The FAA and unions representing airline pilots and air traffic controllers all declined requests for interviews. Both Mr. Turner and Mr. Farrior served paid suspensions before returning to their duties as controllers. That's a "testament" to the power of organized labor and our civil service system, where it's almost impossible to fire an employee, even if their actions contributed to the deaths of other individuals.
True, Ronald Reagan cleaned house when air traffic controllers went on an illegal strike in 1981. But since the new union has been certified (vowing to never walk off the job), labor issues have largely focused on finding replacements for retiring controllers (most are required to retire by the age of 56) and providing more rest periods for those on duty. Controllers who run into disciplinary problems or encounter more serious problems (like Turner and Farrior) can still fight to keep their jobs, and in many cases, they win.
Most air traffic controllers are extraordinary professionals who excel in one of the worlds most demanding jobs. But it's baffling that their union--and the federal bureaucracy--will go to bat for individuals whose carelessness contributed to past disasters in the sky.
One final thought: the Newport News-Williamsburg Airport is frequently used for touch-and-go training by crews from the 89th Military Airlift Wing, which operates Air Force One and other VIP jets. It's a likely bet that Mr. Turner has been in tower when that distinctive Boeing 747 works the pattern during practice missions, but it would be interesting to know if he's allowed to control Air Force One or Air Force Two when President Obama or Joe Biden is on-board.