The story behind a stalled Obama nominee

Erroll Southers would bring a lot of experience, along with a whiff of scandal, to the TSA

Topics: Erroll Southers, War Room, Jim DeMint, R-S.C., Susan M. Collins, Transportation Security Administration,

Erroll Southers has been waiting for months now to become the new head of the Transportation Security Administration, and it looks like he’s still got a wait ahead of him.

President Obama nominated Southers for the post back in September. Even after the attempted bombing of Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day, though, Southers’ confirmation has been stalled. First, it was held up because Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., was concerned that the nominee would allow TSA workers to unionize. Now, DeMint and other Republicans say they’re worried about inconsistencies in Southers’ account of a decades-old incident in which he inappropriately accessed confidential information.

Meanwhile, despite — or perhaps because of — the substantial amount of attention Southers has gotten as a result of his stalled nomination and the Christmas attack, the details of his career prior to being nominated have remained unexplored. Regardless of political agendas on either side of the aisle, Southers does have impressive qualifications: He’d bring over three decades of experience in law enforcement, counterterrorism and airport security to the job.

Southers’ career in law enforcement began in 1980, when he joined the Santa Monica Police Department, where he worked as an investigator and police officer and spent some time training police cadets at the academy. In 1984, he was recruited into the FBI, where he worked on counterintelligence and terrorism investigations and as a SWAT team member. Despite the controversy surrounding the end of Southers’ FBI career – he left shortly after the incident in which he inappropriately accessed a federal database – Don Leighton, the man who brought him in, still sings his praises. In a letter to Sens. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, supporting Southers’ nomination, Leighton lauded his former recruit’s “courage in addressing prison riots in the Bureau of Prisons system” and described him as “uniquely and superbly qualified to take command of the [TSA].”

After leaving the FBI, Southers returned to the Santa Monica Police Department for a few years before moving to the private sector. He went back to government work in 2004, though, when he was appointed by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to serve as deputy director for the protection of critical infrastructure in the state’s Office of Homeland Security. During his two years there, Southers helped develop the National Infrastructure Protection Plan, a federal project to bring together various efforts aimed at protecting the country. He also made a strong impression on Ronald Iden, then the director of the office. Iden has described Southers as “a man of unquestioned integrity who, for the past 30 years, has dedicated his life to public service” and praised him as “a courageous innovator, an effective collaborator and a respected leader.”

Since 2007, Southers has worked as an assistant chief of the Los Angels World Airports Police Department, the country’s largest aviation law enforcement agency; he’s received good reviews in that job, too.

But DeMint, and some other Republicans, are still concerned. Wesley Denton, a spokesman for the senator, told Salon that his boss first became concerned about Southers’ integrity when he learned that Southers didn’t have an opinion on unionization of the TSA. Since this is “one of the central issues surrounding the TSA,” Denton said, “it seems hard to believe that [Southers] has not formed a position.” These concerns about Southers’ integrity were stoked, according to Denton, when DeMint “learned that [Southers] misled Congress about his improper use of background records of another American.”

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The crux of that issue lies in discrepancies between two different versions of a story Southers told the Senate Homeland Security Committee about an incident during his time with the FBI that led to his being censured. Initially, in an October affidavit, Southers said that the FBI censured him after he asked an employee of the San Diego Police Department to search a confidential database for records about his estranged wife’s boyfriend. However, when Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the committee’s ranking Republican, received a briefing about the censure letter, she noted some differences between it and Southers’ recounting, and asked him to explain them.

In a November letter to Collins and Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., Southers wrote that, after reviewing certain documents, he realized that his initial report was incorrect. Southers admitted that, on two separate occasions in 1987 and 1988, he personally searched the database, downloaded confidential law enforcement information and passed it along to a member of the police department. In the letter, Southers described the incident as a “serious error in judgment” that he made “during a period of great personal turmoil.” He also wrote that he was “distressed by the inconsistencies between [his] recollection and the contemporaneous documents” and assured the Senators that his mistakes were inadvertent.

Southers enjoys broad support from Democrats, though, and the Obama administration is still standing behind its nominee. White House spokesman Nick Shapiro told Salon via e-mail that Southers has been forthcoming about the incident at the FBI, saying, “neither in testimony nor in writing has Southers ever tried to hide or mischaracterize this incident.” Shapiro characterized DeMint’s attempt to derail the nomination as a partisan ploy, telling Salon that “despite Southers’ qualifications, Senator DeMint continues to pursue a failed strategy by recklessly playing politics with this nomination instead of doing what is best to keep us safe.”

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V., who chairs the Homeland Security Committee, has similarly dismissed Republican attempts to derail the nomination as purely political. “Errol Southers is deeply qualified to be TSA Administrator,” Rockefeller said recently. “He understands the challenges facing the agency, and I believe has the strong management, leadership, and judgment that the position demands. Two Senate Committees have reviewed Mr. Southers’ nomination and voted to approve it. The Senate should have acted upon this nomination weeks ago, but for the political agenda of a few Senators.”

Still, even if it takes months more before Southers’ nomination comes up for a vote in the full Senate, he will at least have the backing of one Republican in the meantime. Schwarzenegger still stands behind the nominee, and has reiterated that support since the controversy over Southers began getting national attention, saying, “Erroll brings vast homeland security experience at the federal, state and local levels, which is coupled with hands-on airport security expertise. California is safer and better prepared because of Erroll’s commitment, hard work and dedication, and he is more than qualified for this role.”

Emily Holleman is the editor of Open Salon.

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