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.
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."Board 'Jeopardized'
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."