Barbara Hollingsworth: 'Regulatory capture' explains a lot about FAA's failures 

What happens to federal employees who ignore safety warnings, cover up incompetent or even criminal behavior, destroy official documents and mislead members of Congress? At the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), they get promoted.

That's the take-away from last week's National Whistleblowers Assembly on Capitol Hill, sponsored by the Government Accountability Project (GAP) and featuring famous NYPD whistleblower Frank Serpico and former FBI agent Coleen Rowley.

GAP wants teeth added to the Whistleblower Protection Act, which legal director Tom Devine calls "a trap ... that efficiently rubberstamps almost any retaliation" against federal employees who dare to speak up about illegality, waste and fraud, and inefficiency in the government.

Such as former FAA inspector Gabe Bruno. After he uncovered a criminal ring that was selling aircraft mechanic licenses to unqualified individuals, the 30-year civil service veteran was forced out of the agency. Bruno, now executive director of the FAA Whistleblowers Alliance (FWA), said that as many as 2,000 fake mechanics are still repairing commercial airliners while FAA officials look the other way.

Former FAA inspector Richard Wyeroski suffered a similar fate after he reported a cover-up of runway incursions at Islip Macarthur Airport in Long Island, N.Y., where planes came within 50 feet of crashing into each other twice in one week. Wyeroski was fired but not his politically connected manager, who got a promotion instead.

Raymond Adams, an air traffic controller in Newark, is one of just 2 percent of all federal whistleblowers to be reinstated after disclosing a dangerous high-risk FAA procedure that was causing pilots to make wrong turns in the airport's crowded airspace.

After more than a year on administrative leave, Adams was eventually vindicated when FAA finally acted on his recommendations and in-air incursions suddenly dropped 80 percent during the first three months of 2009. But "vindication is not protection," he pointed out.

Indeed, were it not for the fact that FAA managers gave different answers during two different disciplinary proceedings -- and he had the transcripts to prove it -- Adams may very well have joined fellow air traffic controllers in Memphis, Tenn., and Dallas-Fort Worth who were demoted and harassed for exposing operational errors that endangered public safety.

Bruno says FWA members' technical knowledge often surpasses that of FAA political appointees, but "FAA is more interested in appearing not to have a problem than in getting the problem fixed." In an industry where one mistake can kill hundreds of people, this is simply unacceptable.

Bruno points to Nobel Prize winner George Stigler's theory of regulatory capture to explain why the FAA continues to punish whistleblowers instead of fixing the problems they raise. Regulatory capture occurs when an agency's public mission becomes secondary to the private interests of the regulated entities. Bruno cites FAA's "systemic violation of safety priorities" as proof that this has occurred.

This explains why FAA has repeatedly ignored National Transportation Safety Board recommendations to require transponders on gliders. It explains why FAA creates useless data while ignoring its own real-time feedback procedure, and why former flight standards director James Ballough was promoted after being harshly criticized by the chairman and ranking member of the House Transportation Committee for "misleading Congress" while under oath in 2008.

And it certainly explains why Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood hand-picked United Airlines chief executive Glenn Tilton to be a member of his Future of Aviation Advisory Committee despite an ongoing Securities and Exchange Commission investigation into United's 2005 bankruptcy.

"Regulatory capture is a form of government failure," Bruno points out. And when government excuses or ignores its own mistakes and punishes those who point them out, failure is exactly what you wind up with every time.

Barbara F. Hollingsworth is local opinion editor of The Examiner.

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