House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and Ranking Member Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, issued a letter May 2 to Huban Gowadia, acting director of the Transportation Security Administration, chiding the Indian American for failing to comply with a Congressional subpoena which mandates that the agency must provide information for an investigation about the handling of whistleblowers at the TSA.
The Office of Special Counsel has launched an investigation into allegedly retaliatory measures taken against TSA screeners who speak out about the agency’s practices. Members of Congress said at a hearing that the retaliatory practices of the agency had a “chilling effect” on whistleblowers who wished to speak out, potentially harming the nation’s security.
Chaffetz and Cummings were following up on a blistering committee hearing held March 2, in which Gowadia claimed that the information the committee was seeking was subject to attorney-client privilege. “We follow departmental guidance. My hands are tied by departmental policy,” said Gowadia, who has helmed the beleaguered agency since Jan. 19, when former TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger resigned, in the advent of the new Trump administration.
Gowadia said at the hearing that whistleblowers had many avenues to air their issues, and that whistleblowers were in fact afforded protections by the TSA, including an appellate board, where their grievances could be heard.
At the March 2 hearing, Chaffetz grilled Gowadia, asking her to name an official to whom he could direct his inquiries. The TSA administrator demurred, saying she would have to get back to his office. She said that OSC had “all the appropriate information” it needed to conduct the investigation, and that attorney-client privilege and her boss at the Department of Homeland Security prohibited her from releasing additional information.
“Give me some names. I want to know who to call up there,” blasted Chaffetz, noting there was no attorney-client privilege when one governmental office asks for information from another agency. He stressed that Gowadia was the acting administrator, overseeing TSA’s 60,000 employees, and had the authority to provide or redact information for the OSC.
Chaffetz threatened Gowadia with a subpoena within a week if she failed to provide all the documents OSC asked for. He repeatedly asked for “specific names” of people he could call.
“We’re going to go to the ends of the earth to protect whistleblowers,” roared Chaffetz. He urged TSA workers attending the hearing “to get their butts out of their chairs,” to get the names of people he could call to get the information OSC had requested.
Chaffetz and Cummings issued the subpoena a week later. The subpoena required the administrator to appear and produce documents by 12 p.m. on March 31. Gowadia did not comply with the subpoena. Instead, DHS – which oversees TSA – sent a letter saying it was entitled to withhold documents on individual personnel cases on the grounds that the information was protected by attorney-client privilege.
In the May 2 letter, Chaffetz and Cummings threatened Gowadia with “serious action” if she did not comply with the subpoena. “The Committee's need for the information responsive to the subpoena significantly outweighs any other interest,” said the congressmen.
“You must comply with your legal obligations immediately. The Committee expressly reserves its right to commence enforcement proceedings if you do not,” wrote Chaffetz and Cummings.
Before joining TSA, Gowadia served as director of the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office at DHS, and began her government career at the Federal Aviation Administration.
The Mumbai native received her B.S. in aerospace engineering from the University of Alabama and her Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Pennsylvania State University.