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TSA nominee has long record in Southern California law enforcement

Inside the Washington Beltway, Erroll G. Southers, the assistant chief of airport police in Los Angeles, is mired in controversy over whether he should head the federal agency that helps protect airline passengers from terrorist attacks.

In the last week, a band of Republican congressmen has dogged his nomination with questions about a reprimand he received 22 years ago as an FBI agent and whether he is qualified to oversee the Transportation Security Administration, a massive department with 45,000 screeners at 450 airports nationwide.

As the issue flares in Congress, however, a broad section of Southers’ supporters -- including California’s Republican governor, Los Angeles’ Democratic mayor and law enforcement officials who know him -- insist the counter-terrorism expert is the right man for the job.

“I have met and worked with thousands of police officers and law enforcement officials on the federal, state and local levels,” said James Butts, who retired last year as chief of the Los Angeles World Airports Police Department. “I have never met any person in this field with higher integrity and personal values than Erroll Southers. My nickname for him is ‘Captain America.’ ”

Southers, 53, is “very bright,” added Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, who met him when she headed the homeland security division of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

Initially, one Republican senator held up Southers’ confirmation over concerns he would support unionization of TSA employees.

But in the wake of failures to intercept a Nigerian who attempted to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day, new attention and partisan infighting has surrounded Southers’ nomination.

Several Republican senators have questioned his past and the vetting of his background by White House aides. Rep. John Mica (R-Florida), who helped create the TSA, has said he is unsure whether Southers is qualified to manage the huge agency.

A White House spokesman said last week that the nominee remains “uniquely qualified” and has support from a host of senators in both parties, including Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who has queried Southers about his censure at the FBI.

Southers declined to talk to The Times while his nomination is pending. According to his resume, he has more than 30 years of experience in law enforcement and academia. Much of that time has been devoted to studying, developing and implementing anti-terrorism measures for a variety of public institutions, including Los Angeles International Airport, the third busiest in the nation and a top potential terrorism target.

Southers began his law enforcement career at the Santa Monica Police Department in 1980. Four years later, he went to work as an FBI agent in San Diego. It was there that Southers was censured for improperly accessing a criminal records database to check on the boyfriend of his ex-wife.

Several Republican senators say they are concerned about the incident as well as an inconsistent account Southers gave to Congress. Senators noted that he corrected his original version of the events after Collins questioned him about the discrepancies.

In his amended statement, Southers said that he checked a criminal records database twice, not once, and had searched them himself, rather than asking a police officer to do it for him. The mistakes in his original account, he said, were inadvertent.

Butts said it was not uncommon for law enforcement officers to use the criminal records database back then. “It was wrong,” he added. “But, in police culture, it was not the taboo it is now” because of heightened concerns about privacy.

For reasons unrelated to the censure, Southers said, he left the FBI in 1988 and returned to the Santa Monica Police Department, where he became a gang expert. In 1991, he headed security for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, but left in 2004, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed him a deputy director in the state Department of Homeland Security.

In 2007, Butts hired Southers as an assistant chief at the Los Angeles World Airports Police Department, a force of about 1,200 officers.

Southers also is an adjunct professor of homeland security at the University of Southern California and the assistant director of a university program that evaluates and plans for potential terrorist attacks.

dan.weikel@latimes.com

rich.connell@latimes.com


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