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Safety Chief in Holding Pattern
Before joining the board, Engleman Conners was viewed as a rising star in the transportation world. She served as head of a division in the Transportation Department in charge of research and special programs. She is known to be ambitious and a bit eccentric, and DOT colleagues said she is exceptionally smart and eager to please her managers. She often joked to colleagues that she was determined to live the life of a spinster aboard her houseboat on the Potomac with her five cats -- each of which had its own life preserver.
Those who worked with her say she commonly wore elephant pins to show her support for the Republican Party, and she placed large photographs of the president and Vice President Cheney in her office. This partisanship irked some board members, who see the NTSB's function as purely technical -- and independent of politics. Many transportation industry leaders say Engleman Conners owes her chairmanship to a relationship with Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta, the Bush administration's lone Democrat in the Cabinet, who has served as her mentor. (She stopped wearing the pins when she became chairman.)
Mineta was best man at her wedding to Michael Conners, a principal at Booz Allen, in 2003.
Many NTSB senior leaders give Engleman Conners credit for cleaning up the agency's finances, which were plagued by scandal in the late 1990s. She has said she is most proud that the NTSB has closed many of its safety recommendations, meaning that federal transportation agencies have agreed to implement safety improvements that satisfy the board.
But Paula Sind-Prunier, a unit representative for 300 NTSB employees at the American Federation of Government Employees, said some workers have complained that under Engleman Conners the agency settles for too little to "close out" a safety recommendation, or remove it from the agency's To Do list. "I have heard from employees who were dissatisfied that the intent of the recommendation has been watered down in order for them to close it out," Sind-Prunier said.
Engleman Conners has not been popular among her peers at the board. Last year, she got into a high-profile spat with three of the four other board members that led to members' not speaking to one another and Engleman Conners working much of the time from the NTSB Academy in Ashburn, Va., rather than at headquarters in Washington.
Healing, former member Carol J. Carmody and current member Deborah A.P. Hersman complained that Engleman Conners forbade direct communication with lawmakers and limited allocations for staff support, according to letters they sent the chairman. When Engleman Conners did not respond to their liking, the board members passed a series of orders to change Engleman Conners's policies.
Two board members said that in 2003, Engleman Conners tried to pressure them into changing their votes on an administrative issue involving the owner of a helicopter company who failed to get a required drug test. When three board members -- Healing, Goglia and Carmody -- indicated their intention to vote against punishing the owner, Engleman Conners called for an emergency meeting on the matter on May 22, 2003. Healing and Goglia said Engleman Conners told them they needed to change their votes and that they were not leaving until they did.
"She pushed on us and pushed on us," Goglia said. He and Healing ended up changing their votes, and both said they regretted it.
The NTSB decision was reversed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit by Judge John G. Roberts Jr., now chief justice of the United States.
Engleman Conners denies pressuring anyone to change his or her vote. "There's no strong-arming," she said. "We all put forth our arguments, and we all put forth logical basis for our arguments. The strength was in our logic."
Healing said he believes Engleman Conners made life difficult for him on several occasions, which eventually led to his resignation. He said Engleman Conners delayed action on submitting at least six names to the White House to be approved as his personal aides and pushed him to accept her selections of staff. He also says she monitored and restricted his travel and contacts with members of Congress and other officials, which Engleman Conners denies.
"People told me it was the best job I would ever have in my entire career," said Healing, who served as a safety official in the U.S. Coast Guard and the Navy and has a particular interest in helicopter crashes. "It was the worst and not because of the job, but the work environment."
"The way [Healing] was treated was appalling and jeopardized the independence of the board," Goglia said.
When asked about Healing's decision to leave, Engleman Conners seemed surprised to hear that Healing was unhappy with her. She said she tried to foster a spirit of collegiality at the board, holding "visioning sessions" with individual board members over lunch where they would discuss ideas. Engleman Conners said she had no role in Healing's difficulty securing aides.
"His situation was frustrating, but it's no different than anyone else who is a political person," Engleman Conners said. "It's a process. No one is thrilled with it. I am not personally involved in it."