Infighting continues among NTSB members

 - December 14, 2007, 10:22 AM

By mid-October, NTSB chairman Ellen Engleman Conners had not yet invited Board members Carol Carmody, Richard Healing and Deborah Hersman to a meeting to discuss their grievances, which they articulated in a late-August letter to the Board chairman. However, Engleman Conners’ motion to the White House to dismiss Healing for an alleged ethics violation has been dropped, after NTSB staff discovered that his actions did not violate government ethics standards.

Healing’s alleged ethics violation occurred during the investigation into the loss of an ERA Aviation Sikorsky S-76 in the Gulf of Mexico. The helicopter crashed on March 23, 2004, while en route from Galveston to Padre Island, Texas. Ten people died in the accident.

The NTSB dispatched an investigative team but did not follow the customary practice of appointing a Board member to monitor the process. Since Board members are specifically encouraged to visit accident locations–particularly when no other Board member has been appointed–Healing, a former Coast Guard officer, decided to visit the crash site and was offered a ride in another of the company’s helicopters.

When Engleman Conners learned of this, she decided that in accepting a free trip Healing had violated the Board’s ethics rules, and she suggested to the White House– since Members are political appointees–that he be dismissed. After intervention from former members of the Administration, White House deputy counsel David Leitch (former FAA chief counsel) returned Engleman Conners’ request, advising her that the issue was “inappropriate for the White House to deal with.”

The grounds for the allegation were based on the NTSB’s ethics officials’ misreading of standard government travel regulations. After the accusation of an ethics violation, Healing retained legal counsel; the NTSB will pay his attorney’s fees and he will submit the $2,000 cost of the helicopter flight as a routine expense incurred in performing his duties.

Grievances Not Moot
As AIN reported last month, Carmody, Healing and Hersman had written to Engleman Conners on August 24 outlining their concerns about her management practices in 10 specific areas and requested an early meeting to discuss them. Engleman Conners replied by e-mail on September 16 proposing a meeting on October 26, more than two months after their request, to coincide with the NTSB’s planned announcement of its findings on the November 2001 crash of American Airlines 587 (an Airbus A300) in a neighborhood near John F. Kennedy International Airport. The chairman’s e-mail also noted that “the issues have been addressed and are moot.”

The three members responded on September 20, stating, “Your declaration that the issues have been addressed and are moot is not true.” They requested an earlier date, but at press time their request had not been answered.

Their second letter repeated and elaborated on the 10 points they had previously raised and added some cutting remarks. They wrote, “As evidenced by the fact that we are forced to communicate with you by letter, we have not found your ‘open door’ policy to be effective since you have not been available to meet with us over the course of the last month.” They also wrote, “You state that you ‘have eliminated the costly and expensive field hearings.’ These were eliminated long before your tenure, and should not be claimed as evidence of your management practices.”

One of those practices is Engleman Conners’ drive to reduce the number of outstanding safety recommendations, which she described as “a key aspect of my tenure at the Board” when addressing the International Society of Air Safety Investigators. One retired investigator strongly disagreed, telling AIN that aircraft accident reports should never be closed “to make the reducing numbers look good politically,” since an accident today could shed new light on one that occurred several years ago.

Another practice that has caused concern among the three members and others outside the NTSB is Engleman Conners’ introduction of the SWAT (Safety With A Team) concept, in which the NTSB discusses proposed safety recommendations with affected agencies such as the FAA and both parties agree on the final wording. The three Board members and some outside the Board feel that this strategy inevitably results in softening the effect of safety recommendations, even though Engleman Conners had earlier told the Air Line Pilots Association that “The NTSB is a fiercely independent agency that must remain so in order to accomplish our mission of determining the probable cause irrespective of fault.”

AIN has learned that NTSB watchers have also become concerned about an advertising project, said to cost around $250,000, that Engleman Conners has launched to raise public awareness of the agency’s work, an activity previous Board chairmen had never felt necessary.

Engleman Conners’ term as NTSB chairman ends next month, and Washington insiders expect she will be replaced by current NTSB vice chairman Mark Rosenker. She is, however, entitled to spend an additional three years as a Board member to complete the normal five-year assignment.