Misconduct cases among Transportation Security Administration workers rose 26% over the last three years, according to a government watchdog Tuesday.
The number of misconduct cases rose to 3,408 last year from 2,691 in 2010, according to the Government Accountability Office. Nearly one-third (32%) of the cases involved attendance and 20% dealt with violating security standards, such as allowing travelers and luggage to bypass screening.
Nearly half the cases (47%) resulted in letters of reprimand describing unacceptable conduct, 31% resulted in suspensions and 17% resulted in the worker leaving the agency, according to GAO.
"While TSA has taken steps to help manage the investigations and adjudication process, such as providing training to TSA staff at airports, additional procedures could help TSA better monitor the investigations and adjudications process," said in a 38-page report from Stephen Lord, director of homeland security issues for GAO.
The cases are sometimes publicized. A TSA officer at Orlando's airport pleaded guilty in 2011 to embezzlement and theft for stealing 80 laptop computers and other electronics worth $80,000 from passenger luggage.
The report's time frame coincided with the tenure of TSA Administrator John Pistole, a former deputy director of the FBI who tightened enforcement of workplace rules.
Several clusters of workers were fired a year ago in separate incidents at Newark airport for sleeping on the job, at Philadelphia airport for cheating on tests and at Fort Myers, Fla, airport for failing to conduct random screenings.
TSA released a statement Tuesday saying that the agency is already working to implement GAO recommendations for verifying that airport workers are complying with rules.
"TSA holds its employees to the highest ethical standards and expects all TSA employees to conduct themselves with integrity and professionalism," the statement said. "There is zero tolerance for misconduct in the workplace and TSA takes appropriate action when substantiated, including anything from a referral to law enforcement or termination of employment."
In a written reply to the GAO report, TSA said it created a special employee relations office in 2004 to provide supervisors and managers the ability to deal with misconduct. In 2010, the agency created an office of professional responsibility to review and adjudicate allegations of misconduct investigated by the inspector general's office.
"When employees engage in misconduct, it undermines the mission and the public trust," wrote Jim Crumpacker, director of the agency's liaison office with GAO. "TSA takes these matters very seriously and strives to ensure that the actions taken in response to allegations of misconduct are appropriate and timely."
The House Homeland Security Committee is holding a hearing on TSA personnel misconduct Wednesday.
The chairman of the oversight subcommittee, Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., said the GAO report "raises troubling concerns about misconduct at our airports" and show "that TSA plays fast and loose with its use of recommended penalties."
The top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, voiced frustration that TSA doesn't have a system to adjudicate misconduct cases consistently a decade after the agency was created.
"Failing to do so leaves TSA vulnerable to claims that punishment for misconduct could be tainted by influences beyond the facts of each case," Thompson said.