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Before vote, some senators knew of testimony error by TSA nominee Southers

By Philip Rucker and Robert O'Harrow Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 2, 2010; A01

Democratic senators rallied around President Obama's pick to head the Transportation Security Administration on Friday as new details emerged indicating that key lawmakers already knew when they voted in November to advance his nomination that he had mischaracterized a personal incident in his testimony.

The White House rushed to defend Erroll Southers, who is under fire for providing inconsistent statements to Congress about inappropriately accessing confidential criminal records 20 years ago about his then-estranged wife's new boyfriend. Democratic senators, meanwhile, intensified pressure to confirm Southers soon after Congress returns from its winter recess, saying it is critical that permanent leadership is installed at the TSA in the aftermath of the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a U.S. airliner.

Still, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who earlier delayed Southers's nomination over a labor union issue, on Friday became the first senator to oppose the nominee, saying, "If he can't tell the truth, then he's not qualified and should not be confirmed."

The discrepancy surfaced in documents first published by The Washington Post on Thursday.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who had raised suspicions about Southers's statements to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said Friday she is satisfied with his explanations and has faith in his nomination.

"In the absence of any new information, I intend to support Mr. Southers, who is qualified to lead the TSA during this challenging time for the agency," Collins said in a statement to The Post.

Collins, the top Republican on the committee, said Friday she had had suspicions about Southers's statements. She approved his nomination conditionally Nov. 19, asking him to account in writing for inconsistencies between his sworn account of the incident and documents the committee obtained from the FBI.

Southers originally told Congress that as an FBI agent, he had asked a police officer to access the records about the boyfriend, but he later acknowledged that he did two searches himself.

A day after the vote, Collins said, Southers took responsibility for giving Congress misleading information, citing a poor memory.

White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said Friday that "Southers has never tried to hide this incident, and has expressed that these were errors he made in judgment that he deeply regretted and an error that he made in an account of events that happened over 20 years ago."

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), the committee's chairman, said he supports the nominee, and he echoed other senators in the Democratic caucus in saying Southers's experience as a law enforcement official "more than qualifies him for the position."

Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), who chairs an aviation subcommittee that approved Southers's selection, said the inconsistencies should not derail his nomination.

"Look, nobody's perfect. He made a mistake a couple of decades ago, and he disclosed that mistake to the committees," Dorgan said in an interview Friday. "He clearly is well qualified for that job, and we also very clearly need someone in that post to head the TSA."

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano called Southers "a highly regarded leader in counterterrorism."

"Erroll Southers' years of experience in aviation security and law enforcement are recognized across the country and by our international partners throughout the world," she said in a statement to The Post. "Erroll will bring a strong understanding of technology and its application in the aviation environment."

Southers, a former FBI agent and California state homeland security official, serves as assistant chief for homeland security and intelligence with the Los Angeles World Airports Police Department, the nation's largest airport police department.

"I have seen Erroll's dedication to public safety firsthand," California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) said in a statement to The Post. "California is safer and better prepared because of Erroll's commitment, hard work and dedication, and he is more than qualified for this role."

DeMint had placed a hold on Southers's nomination in an effort to prevent TSA workers from entering into collective bargaining. In his statement Friday, he said Southers "has not been forthcoming about whether he'll give union bosses control of our airport security, which is one of the most important decisions he'll make as head of the TSA."

The Homeland Security Department has said such decisions fall to the DHS secretary, not the TSA administrator.

Other senators have lambasted DeMint for delaying Southers's nomination over the labor issue, saying the position is critical to homeland security.

"As recent events prove, this position is too critical to be held up over crass political issues," Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) said in a statement to The Post. "There is no debate over Mr. Southers' qualifications."

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) plans to invoke cloture and urge a vote on the nomination soon after the chamber returns to session Jan. 19, senior adviser Jim Manley said.

"As a former FBI special agent and counterterrorism expert with 30 years of experience in homeland security issues, Mr. Southers would have a critical role in ensuring the safety of our nation's transportation infrastructure," Manley said. "But despite these qualifications, Senator DeMint continues to pursue a failed strategy by recklessly playing politics with this nomination."

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