Erroll Southers, Obama's choice to head TSA, withdraws nomination

Erroll Southers, assistant chief of homeland security and intelligence with the Los Angeles World Airports police department, withdrew his nomination to head the Transportation Security Administration.
Erroll Southers, assistant chief of homeland security and intelligence with the Los Angeles World Airports police department, withdrew his nomination to head the Transportation Security Administration. (AP)
By Robert O'Harrow Jr. and Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Obama administration's choice to lead the struggling Transportation Security Administration withdrew his name from consideration Wednesday, just weeks after revelations that he had provided misleading information to Congress prompted several Republicans to suggest that his nomination would not move forward without a fight.

Erroll Southers, a former FBI agent and homeland security specialist, was presented as a leader who would improve the TSA's sprawling operations and enhance passenger screening to prevent such attacks as the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner.

But GOP opposition to Southers escalated rapidly after The Washington Post reported that he had given Congress and the White House misleading information about incidents two decades ago in which he inappropriately accessed a federal database to obtain information about his estranged wife's new boyfriend, possibly in violation of privacy laws.

In a statement released by the White House, Southers blamed congressional critics motivated by "political ideology" for the troubles that overshadowed his nomination.

"It is apparent that this path has been obstructed by political ideology," he said. ". . . My nomination has become a lightning rod for those who have chosen to push a political agenda at the risk of the safety and security of the American people. This partisan climate is unacceptable and I refuse to allow myself to remain part of their dialogue."

Prepared for a fight

The withdrawal comes at a difficult time for the White House. The TSA has been leaderless for months, and further delay was likely as the Senate prepared for a procedural fight over holds placed on Southers's nomination.

Two weeks ago, seven Republican senators, including John McCain (Ariz.), Charles E. Grassley (Iowa) and Tom Coburn (Okla.), demanded that the White House provide more information about why Southers initially gave Congress an incorrect account about the long-ago database searches, which led to his censure by the FBI. Their criticism followed a hold placed on the nomination by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who said he was concerned that Southers would support the unionization of TSA workers.

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) had promised to rally votes to overcome those holds and force the nomination through as early as Wednesday. But such a battle would have added to the political distractions caused by Tuesday's special election in Massachusetts, in which Republican Scott Brown pulled off an upset to capture the seat long held by the late senator Edward M. Kennedy (D). The GOP win dealt a shocking blow to the Obama administration's domestic agenda.

White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said in a statement that President Obama believes Southers -- who has also served as a police officer, a senior official in the California governor's office of homeland security, and assistant chief of homeland security and intelligence with the Los Angeles World Airports Police Department -- would have been "an excellent TSA Administrator." But, Shapiro said, the president "understands [Southers's] personal decision and the choice he has made."

"Southers was uniquely qualified for this job and it is with great sadness that the president accepted Southers's withdrawal. Fortunately the acting TSA administrator is very able and we have a solid team of professionals at TSA doing vital national security work to keep us safe," Shapiro said.

In a statement two weeks ago, a White House spokesman said officials did not know of the discrepancies in Southers's account until November, well into the nomination process.

Discrepancies in his story

The discrepancies in Southers's statements to Congress and to the White House surrounded incidents in 1987 and 1988 that led to his censure by FBI officials for inappropriately accessing a federal database. In an Oct. 22 affidavit provided to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Southers said he asked a San Diego police officer to access the records. In November, the committee's ranking Republican, Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), received a White House briefing about the censure letter and noticed discrepancies in Southers's account. She asked Southers to explain the episode and placed a brief hold on his nomination pending his answers.

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 told the committee that "the mistake was inadvertent."

Collins released the hold, and committee Chairman Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), along with other Democrats and Republicans on the committee who received the letter, also accepted Southers's explanation, until after The Post story three weeks ago, when pressure mounted for a fuller accounting.

"The important mission of the TSA will require a focused and determined leader," Collins said Wednesday. "It is critically important that the White House act quickly to nominate someone with qualifications and reputation which are beyond reproach to lead this agency."

Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University and a specialist in presidential transitions, said the collapse of the nomination raises questions about how the White House and Congress review top job candidates. "This is another example of where the presidential vetting process has failed," Light said. "They should have detected this early and moved on to another candidate."

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