Safety Chief in Holding Pattern

By Sara Kehaulani Goo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 4, 2005

Earlier this year, Ellen Engleman Conners packed up her belongings in her L'Enfant Plaza office at the National Transportation Safety Board and moved out. Her term as chairman of the agency that investigates transportation accidents had expired, and President Bush had not nominated her to a second term.

Engleman Conners had to wait weeks before the renomination came through. But her future as head of one of the government's most independent agencies remains uncertain.

The Senate commerce committee dropped her from a scheduled confirmation hearing this week, while moving ahead with two other NTSB appointments, which will be sent to the floor for a vote.

Several former NTSB board members have shared their objections about her management style with lawmakers, complaining that she has pressed board members to change their votes, tried to micromanage her colleagues and has shifted too many staff resources to the agency's teaching academy away from investigating accidents. One Republican board member, Richard F. Healing, stepped down in July -- 17 months before his term's end -- in large part because of his rocky relations with Engleman Conners.

"At this time, it's to be determined what's going to happen," a GOP Senate aide said. An NTSB aide to Engleman Conners said she was not told why her hearing had been postponed.

The skies over the United States have never been safer. No major airplane crash has occurred since 2001. Against that backdrop, former board members who worked with Engleman Conners said her management of the NTSB had become rife with pettiness and office politics. Sometimes, they said, the agency seemed influenced by national politics, too.

"Based upon what's happened, she should not be reappointed as chairman," said John J. Goglia, a Democrat whose term on the board expired in 2004. He faulted Engleman Conners for, among other things, pressuring him to change his vote on an administrative issue last year. "The NTSB has lost its way," he said.

Engleman Conners said criticism of her chairmanship is unfair, saying that she inherited the teaching academy and its limited resources. She said she has done her best to manage a $76 million agency at a time Congress has not appropriated enough funds to conduct investigations of plane, train, maritime and some highway accidents and efficiently run a teaching facility. She also denies that she twisted arms to sway votes and maintains she has been collegial with the four other board members.

"I do not believe there are any personality conflicts," she said. "We may have individual views, but we are colleagues and we are doing our best."

Mineta, the Mentor

The NTSB is made up of five board members appointed by the president, with the chairman, vice chairman and one other member representing the president's party and the remaining two board members representing the minority party.

Once confirmed by the Senate, members serve five-year terms and take turns serving as the spokesperson at the scene of a major accident, even though they are not investigators. The chairman, in office for a two-year term, is in charge of setting the agency's budget and administrative goals.

Engleman Conners remains a board member; the vice chairman, Mark V. Rosenker, is serving as acting chairman.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company