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Intersection: ‘TSA’s Investigating TSA’: Reactions Come In To Robert Henry’s Death Investigation

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Robert Henry was a TSA agent who experienced constant bullying at the airport. Some say it might have led to his suicide. Photo: GoFundMe

TSO Robert Henry jumped to his death on February 2. Photo: Sylvia Henry

In the early morning hours of February 2, 2019, TSA Agent Robert Henry jumped to his death from the tenth floor of the Hyatt hotel inside Orlando International Airport. He wrote in a suicide note emailed to friends that he couldn’t help but make himself a target of management.

He finished the email: “Tell my managers I will be waiting for them in Hell. Especially the ones who feel this was necessary.”

The question since: Why did Robert Henry kill himself? New documents obtained by WMFE help to shed light on this.

An investigation by WMFE released this year called TSA in Turmoil documented allegations that Henry was bullied by coworkers and targeted by managers, and that this was a major issue at Orlando International Airport and other airports across the country.

As part of that reporting, WMFE put in a Freedom of Information Act Request for the TSA’s death investigation into Robert Henry. The TSA released that report this week.

WMFE reporters Danielle Prieur and Abe Aboraya spoke with Intersection’s Matthew Peddie about the report.

PEDDIE: There have been a lot of questions about what happened to Robert Henry leading up to the suicide. Abe Aboraya, what do we know now because of this death investigation that TSA has released?

ABORAYA: The report confirms some key details of the morning on February 2. Henry had gone from an overnight shift to one where he worked very early in the morning, and he wasn’t doing well with the transition. He was working in a room where TSA officers are looking at screens when he was accused of falling asleep. Falling asleep on the job is a big deal: It’s called a “one step” and TSA officers can get fired on the spot for falling asleep on the job.

PEDDIE: But that didn’t happen to Rob Henry?

ABORAYA: That’s right: The lead officer in charge of Henry says she had seen him fall asleep on the job twice before. On the second time, she reported it to her supervisor. Now, that supervisor reassigned Henry to an area where he would be standing up – that way he couldn’t fall asleep again. Follow so far?

PEDDIE: Sure – so the lead over Rob Henry reported that he fell asleep to the supervisor – but the supervisor didn’t take disciplinary action.

ABORAYA: That’s right. Now, the morning of February 2 at 6:10 a.m., this same lead officer says she again saw Henry asleep. This, according to her, was the third time. So at 7 a.m., she went over the supervisor’s head and went to managers. On the morning of February 2, Henry had a meeting with three managers. Henry signed a statement saying he had closed his eyes, “as a reaction to a flare up of pain I have had since just prior to the start of the government shutdown.”

PEDDIE: That’s right, looking back at February, this was when the government shutdown was in full-swing.

ABORAYA: So Henry fills out a form at 9 a.m. to go home early because of his toothache, and according to the managers, left the office holding his cheek with his hand. The managers say Henry was told to take as much time as he needed to feel better. He was also told management would look start an inquiry into allegations that he’d fallen asleep on the job. But instead of leaving for the dentist, 30 minutes later, he emailed a suicide note and jumped from the tenth floor of the Hyatt hotel inside the airport.

PEDDIE: Now to be clear: We don’t know the names of all the witnesses in the report that TSA provided to WMFE?

ABORAYA: That’s right. The names of almost all of the witnesses interviewed have been redacted for privacy.

PEDDIE: OK, but we do have more clarity and an official count of that morning. Danielle Prieur, what about the reporting we’ve done at WMFE, with multiple coworkers saying Henry was bullied at work?

PRIEUR: That was one of several angles investigators looked at. But ultimately, investigators concluded there was no definitive evidence that Rob Henry committed suicide either because he was bullied or because of the government shutdown.

Now we should say we reached out to TSA several times to try and have someone from the agency talk to us about the report, and we have not gotten a response beyond the records that were released. But as you can imagine the reactions to this report have not been great.

Deb Hannah, who represents the union for TSA workers at Orlando International Airport, said she was “disgusted” by the report. She says people are now mad because the report just reinforces what they already believed about TSA – that this was the conclusion the agency was going to come to regardless of what officers said.

“When I originally. I just printed that out and read it and I got about halfway through and I just threw it on the table,” Hannah said. “Because I was just angry, and I was frustrated and I just didn’t want to read anymore. Because it’s nothing. It’s just a cover-up, that’s all it is.”

PEDDIE: Definitely not mincing words there. I understand you also spoke with Sylvia Henry, Rob Henry’s mother. What was her reaction?

PRIEUR: She was not surprised by the report, and in fact she had seen an earlier copy of it.

“TSA’s investigating TSA and I’m not sure the truth, the whole truth, can come out when an organization is investigating itself,” Sylvia Henry said. “I would like to see improvement of conditions for TSA workers for them to have a supportive management that allows them to be trained and be effective in their jobs and do their jobs as best they can to protect the flying public.”

I also spoke with Mark Zaid, the attorney who is representing the Henry family. His name may be familiar to some listeners because he also represents the whistleblower in the impeachment hearing.

Zaid said the TSA was very professional and sympathetic with the family. The family was able to see the report before it was released publicly. Here’s how he reacted to the top line conclusion, that there was no direct evidence that bullying contributed to Henry’s suicide.

“Well, some of the biggest problems are that a lot of the individuals may not have been willing to come forward and discuss what they saw,” Zaid said. “There was some evidence of the bullying. And we certainly had received reports of it privately. But I can understand having represented federal employees for two and a half decades, that many of them were not willing to tell investigators what they might have seen. So it is unfortunate when that happens, but it’s not surprising.”

PEDDIE: So the family obviously taking issue with the idea that bullying was not a factor in the suicide. What about the role of the government shutdown?

PRIEUR: Zaid says for a lot of the really big questions, there may never be a clear answer.

“Clearly, the shutdown had an impact on him, as it did so many federal employees who weren’t being paid during that time period,” Zaid said. “And it definitely contributed to the anxiety that he was experiencing at the time, which ultimately, apparently led to the suicide. But for a lot of these questions, there’s just suppositions based on whatever evidence that could be compiled. But I think this is one of those that it’s going to remain unknown.”

PEDDIE: Rob Henry’s suicide was very public. Now that we have a public report of his death investigation, beyond the union, how are the findings being taken by TSA workers at Orlando International Airport?

PRIEUR: We also heard from Stan Tuchalski who knew Rob for more than a decade as a friend and colleague at Dulles International Airport and then at Orlando International Airport said he wasn’t surprised by the report’s findings.

But he says he would have liked an unredacted version of the report to be released as most TSA workers names have been blanked out in the report.

“So there’s those questions,” Tuchalski said. “It’s like who actually said this and why was this being said kind of things.”

Tuchalski said he wasn’t surprised by these findings. He said he never thought the shutdown played a role in Rob’s death.

But he does think that what happened to Rob the morning of February 2, where he was brought into a meeting with managers, after he was found asleep in the OSARP, was a factor.

“I believe that a bullying factor and an intimidation factor of meeting managers could largely have caused whatever happened whatever caused him to on that day to go to the tenth floor,” Tuchalski said.

PRIEUR: Getting back to the report: There was also this sort of mystery surrounding what happened to Robert Henry’s airport badge. What did the report tell us about that?

ABORAYA: That was a big question for family members and people following the case closely. Henry’s badge was not brought with the body to the coroner’s office. So there was speculation that maybe Henry was fired on the spot – that his badge was taken from him that morning, and maybe that was the final straw that led to his death. Now, we were able to confirm through a public records request that Henry’s badge was deactivated five days after his death. And this report now says that the badge was taken off of Henry’s body by a first responder – specifically a Customs and Border Patrol agent who took the badge off his body and gave it to EMTs. The badge was later returned.

Here’s Stan Tuchalski talking about the badge.

“It just seemed like nobody wanted to admit what happened to it and nobody seemed to know a chain of command of it,” Tuchalski said. “And was readily willing to divulge anything.”

PEDDIE: Danielle Prieur, this report also detailed other disciplinary incidents Rob had at work, right?

PRIEUR: It did, although the details of some of the incidents have been redacted. For example, it says a manager was collecting statements on Rob’s performance before his death, and that an assistant federal security director had sat down and had an informal meeting with Robert Henry in 2018.

PEDDIE: What about the workplace at Orlando International Airport? What has changed?

PRIEUR: Stan Tuchalski is a good person to talk about this because he currently works at the airport. Now remember, in April, after Henry’s suicide, there were big leadership changes at the airport, including Federal Security Director Jerry Henderson being put on leave. Now, TSA says this was not in reaction to Rob Henry’s suicide. But Stan Tuchalski says it points to an overall toxic workplace for TSA workers at the airport.

“Some of those very people have either been they’re no longer working in the direct workforce at MCO with officers,” Tuchalski said. “They’ve gone onto other positions or they have left Orlando or they’ve relocated to other work areas.”

Stan says things are better now, but he also says that in his view, there’s a segment of management that still exists from the old regime that is trying to resist and is trying to enforce things in the way it used to be.

He said there’s also been a change in the workplace culture by current Federal Security Director Pete Garcia and Assistant Federal Security Director Greg Hawko. And at the national level-there’s a conversation for the first time about mental health awareness.

“TSA nationally has instituted a suicide prevention type of awareness and program that is rolling out and training and everything,” Tuchalski said. “It was an issue that was obviously being ignored not only at MCO but across the nation.”

And Deb Hannah, who represents the union, says there’s been a culture change in Orlando.

“I think that the one thing it helped is that the officers aren’t afraid now to bring stuff out,” Hannah said. “So if something happens they’re filing harassment, they’re filing an EEO, they’re calling their union reps or they’re bringing it to the AFSD and before that wouldn’t have happened.”

PEDDIE: Danielle, Let’s talk about legacy. What are people saying about how Rob Henry will be remembered?

Well, Stan Tuchalski who is still working at MCO as a TSO says Rob’s death has started an important conversation around bullying at the airport. He calls Rob Henry a guardian angel.

“I choose to believe that his sacrificing his life caused people to stop and take notice and pause and look into and investigate and that in the long run there will be more positive change and things will be for the better,” Tuchalski said. “And that’s how I remember him.”

PEDDIE: So what happens now that the report is out there? What’s next for the family?

ABORAYA: We posed that question to the family’s attorney Mark Zaid.

“There’s no lawsuit that’s being planned,” Zaid said. “I mean, what the family certainly would want is to achieve some level of closure. And I think, to at least try and find some meaning in this tragedy. And that one thing that will be pursued is to see if we can get Congress interested in additional oversight of TSA and the climate down in Orlando. And again, to look into it to make sure that something like this never happens again. So there is advocacy that can come out of this tragedy, to hopefully serve as a lesson for how TSA controls and monitors its workforce.”

And I think one outcrop of this has been at least some acknowledgement from the TSA that suicide is an issue for its employees. The TSA is hiring a contractor to do suicide prevention training, and says the reporting on Rob’s suicide helped the agency realize it was an issue.

“Clearly, something needs to be done,” Zaid said. “And this is definitely a first step for TSA and its managers. And no doubt throughout the federal government. Will it be enough that that’s hard to say? I’m sure there’s some level of, of not expecting TSA to be able to prevent every type of situation that might arise with something like this. You need specialized training, etc. But clearly, there has to be something done. And we’re encouraged at least the TSA is taking those initial steps.”

PEDDIE: So what role does Congress play in all this?

ABORAYA: One thing the family talked about was trying to get more congressional oversight into working conditions for TSA employees. This goes all the way from issues of pay to the broader culture at TSA.

Here’s what Sylvia Henry, Rob Henry’s mother, had to say about his legacy.

“His legacy well to us for once for me,” Sylvia Henry said. “He’s my precious son and will always be. I pray he rests in peace. They cannot hurt him anymore, no one can hurt him anymore, nothing here on this planet can hurt him anymore.”

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Abe Aboraya

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