By Robert O'Harrow Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 7, 2010; A03
The nomination of a former FBI agent to lead the Transportation Security Administration hit a new obstacle Wednesday as several Republican senators expressed "serious reservations" about the nominee and pressed the White House for details of incidents in which he improperly accessed a confidential federal database years ago.
White House officials had hoped to speed the confirmation of Erroll Southers to revive confidence in an agency that has been leaderless for months and in the spotlight since the attempted bombing of a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day exposed intelligence and security lapses.
Southers's nomination had been held up by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) because of concerns he would support the unionization of TSA workers. On Wednesday, DeMint and six other Republican senators -- including John McCain (Ariz.), Charles E. Grassley (Iowa) and Tom Coburn (Okla.) -- demanded that the White House provide information about why Southers initially gave Congress an incorrect account about the searches two decades ago, incidents that led to his censure by the FBI.
"We believe that Mr. Southers submitted erroneous, and possibly misleading information regarding ethical violations during his service with the Federal Bureau of Investigation," the senators wrote in a letter to Nancy D. Hogan, special assistant to the president and director of presidential personnel.
Also on Wednesday, Coburn placed a hold on the nomination, pending the White House response to the senators' questions.
The letter and Coburn's hold follow a report in The Washington Post last week that detailed how Southers provided differing accounts to the Senate about incidents in 1987 and 1988 in which he inappropriately accessed a federal database, possibly in violation of privacy laws, in a search for records about his estranged wife's boyfriend.
In an Oct. 22 affidavit provided to the Senate homeland security committee, Southers said he asked a San Diego police officer to access the records. In November, after the committee's ranking Republican, Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), received a briefing about the censure letter and noticed discrepancies in Southers's account, she asked him to explain the episode.
In a Nov. 20 letter, a day after the committee endorsed his nomination, Southers acknowledged that his first account was incorrect. He said that after reviewing documents, he realized he had twice personally conducted the database searches.
Southers wrote that he was "distressed by the inconsistencies between my recollection and the contemporaneous documents," and he assured the committee that "the mistake was inadvertent" and that he had accepted responsibility for what he acknowledged was a grave error in judgment many years ago.
In a statement Wednesday, a White House spokesman said officials did not know of the discrepancies in Southers's account until November, well into the nomination process. The spokesman said the White House remains solidly behind Southers as a well-qualified candidate who simply had a lapse in memory.
"Neither in testimony nor in writing has Southers ever tried to hide or mischaracterize this incident, and he 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," said White House spokesman Nick Shapiro.
Shapiro continued, "In November the White House obtained the text of the censure letter, requested additional investigation into the discrepancies it revealed and provided briefings on the nature of the discrepancies as well as a clarification of the sequence of events."
Collins and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the homeland security committee, remain behind Southers, who they have said has had a sterling career that has prepared him to lead the TSA.
In addition to four years as an FBI agent in San Diego, Southers has served as a police officer, a senior official in the California governor's office of homeland security, and associate director of a homeland security center at the University of Southern California. He is assistant chief of homeland security and intelligence with the Los Angeles World Airports police department.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) also remains committed to working quickly to confirm Southers when the Senate reconvenes this month.
In an interview, Thomas Hughes, who was head of the San Diego FBI office while Southers was there, said he does not recall the circumstances leading to Southers's censure. He said people who worked more closely with Southers described him "as an energetic, athletic, smart and competent agent who was well liked by everyone."
In their letter to the White House, the seven senators ask more than a dozen questions focusing on the original episodes, Southers's account and what the White House knew and when. Among other things, they ask for documents relating to the White House review of Southers, who nomination was announced Sept. 10.
In a separate statement, DeMint said the "Senate shouldn't rubber stamp someone who hasn't been properly vetted and who has stonewalled and misled Congress."
A spokesman for Coburn said that he "will object to Mr. Southers's nomination moving forward until he provides the committee with a more complete and accurate description of the circumstances surrounding his censure." He said Coburn thinks that "Mr. Southers' failures are significant because they pertain directly to his potential role as the head of TSA."
Collins said she supports Southers because she examined questions about the censure letter before anyone else and had a briefing about the details from the White House, which led to more information from Southers that allayed her concerns.
"I required him to provide a more complete account of this incident to the Committee," she said in a statement. "In a subsequent letter, which was provided to all 17 members of the Committee, Mr. Southers took full responsibility for his actions, including his faulty memory on the facts of the incident."