CLEVELAND, Ohio – The city waited 20 hours to notify the federal government that two high-ranking city officials had breached security at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, a Transportation Security Administration official said Thursday.
And that delay made immediate corrective action impossible, said Don Barker, TSA’s security director for Ohio.
TSA officials also disputed a claim by city spokesman Dan Williams that TSA had advised that the city’s report on the incident must be kept secret from the public because it contained information about airport security.
No such advice was given, TSA spokesman Mark Howell said. And nothing in the report would be labeled as sensitive security information until TSA had first reviewed it.
But the city has not yet filed a report with TSA.
Cleveland.com has asked the city for comment on the TSA statements.
What was the incident?
On Oct. 25, Assistant Airport Director Fred Szabo helped the mayor’s chief of operations, Darnell Brown, bypass TSA screening as Brown was preparing to board a plane.
The city has declined to reveal exactly what happened. It has only acknowledged that Brown and Szabo were involved in a “security incident.”
Sources have told cleveland.com that Brown had passed through security and then returned to his car to retrieve a forgotten electronic device. Szabo then helped Brown return to his flight area, bypassing TSA screening.
As a result, Brown boarded the plane without being rescreened or having the electronic device screened.
Federal regulations bar airport personnel from escorting travelers past security.
Brown and Szabo both were put on paid suspensions after the incident. On Nov. 28, the city announced that Szabo was suspended without pay for two weeks. Brown was suspended for a week without pay.
With that announcement the city said its review was concluded and the its investigation was “closed.”
What should have happened?
Barker told cleveland.com on Thursday that the city should have quickly notified the federal government of the incident. That would have allowed TSA to rescreen Brown before his flight left Hopkins or when it landed at Brown’s destination.
The reporting delay is one issue TSA is still pursuing, Barker said.
What about the city’s report?
After the incident, TSA sent letters of inquiry to Szabo, Brown and to the city. Szabo and Brown have responded, Barker said, but the city has not.
Barker said he has asked about the city’s investigation and was informed that nothing was put in writing, that it had all been done orally.
The security chief said he has sent a follow-up letter to the city inquiring about the delay in reporting the incident. The city did reply to that letter, Barker said.
TSA officials said they have been waiting for the city to respond to the inquiry before completing its own investigation of the incident and determining whether fines are merited.
The city issued a news release last week announcing the completion of its investigation into the incident. A posting on the city’s public records portal also states that the city’s response had been provided to TSA. What is meant by the “response” is not clear.
“The response that the City of Cleveland provided to the TSA is considered ‘security sensitive information.’” the post states. “The City of Cleveland has disclosed the information about the discipline of the two city employees; however, the remainder of the response remains security sensitive information.”
What happens next?
TSA’s regulations call for the city to complete its investigation in 30 days.
The federal agency will then review the findings of that investigation to determine how well Cleveland complied with the security plan, what corrective action might be necessary and if there should be any fines levied against individuals or the airport.
The case is supposed to be wrapped up in 90 days. But TSA cannot proceed until it receives Cleveland’s report, Barker said.
“I’m still kind of knee deep in this,” Barker said.
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