Political News

Senators question FAA nominee on whistleblower retaliation lawsuit

Posted June 26, 2019 3:47 p.m. EDT

— President Donald Trump's pick to lead the Federal Aviation Administration is under fire from two Democratic senators after the nominee left out information about a whistleblower lawsuit in his Senate disclosure questionnaire.

As CNN reported earlier this month, FAA nominee Stephen Dickson did not disclose his involvement in a whistleblower retaliation case filed against Delta Air Lines. Dickson was senior vice president of flight operations at Delta when a pilot reported safety concerns to him. In a lawsuit, the pilot said that instead of those concerns being taken seriously, she was sent for a psychiatric evaluation and grounded for more than a year.

In documents released Tuesday, Sen. Richard Blumenthal described the issue as "potentially disqualifying."

In written follow-up questions sent to Dickson after his confirmation hearing in May, the Connecticut Democrat said, "Given the current climate of safety oversight at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), I find this omission deeply concerning and potentially disqualifying."

Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Washington state Democrat who's the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, described the nondisclosure as a "failure" and expressed concern about the underlying allegations in the case.

"Further, the facts related to the whistleblower claim are troublesome and suggest at least the possibility that the claim of retaliation has merit," the Washington state Democrat wrote.

Blumenthal and Cantwell did not immediately respond to CNN's questions about whether they will oppose Dickson's confirmation.

The Senate committee has not yet scheduled a confirmation vote.

In written responses to the senators, Dickson defended his decision not to include the case on his questionnaire on the grounds that he is not a named party in the lawsuit. He also argued that his involvement with the pilot was limited.

On the initial questionnaire Dickson submitted to the committee in April, he stated, "During my Delta employment, from time to time and in the ordinary course of business, Delta was involved in various judicial, administrative or regulatory proceedings relating to its business, although I was not a named party in any such actions."

On another section of the questionnaire that asked for additional information that should be disclosed to the committee in connection with his nomination, Dickson responded, "None."

Dickson said in response to the senators' follow-up questions that before submitting the questionnaire, he had consulted with Department of Transportation and White House staff and decided it was unnecessary to list individual legal and administrative proceedings involving Delta during his tenure in which he was not a defendant.

"My goal has been to be as transparent as possible throughout this entire process," Dickson said.

In a 2016 meeting, Delta pilot Karlene Petitt shared a list of safety concerns with Dickson and another flight operations manager. Following the meeting, Dickson approved sending Petitt to a psychiatrist, who diagnosed her with bipolar disorder, according to documents filed in the case.

Delta grounded Petitt for more than a year, but two subsequent examinations found she does not have that disorder, and she is currently flying for Delta.

Additionally, the FAA substantiated one of Petitt's allegations related to improper pilot scheduling by Delta, according to documents.

Despite Delta's reinstating Petitt to fly, Dickson defended the original decision to refer her for a psychiatric evaluation.

"The referral was made based on a credible report about statements the pilot made to company officials and behavior she exhibited, which raised legitimate questions about her fitness to fly," Dickson wrote in his response to the senators' follow-up questions.

Petitt's case accusing Delta of retaliating against her after she shared her safety concerns is pending before an administrative judge.

Delta denies the retaliation charge and previously told CNN that the scheduling issue Petitt raised had been addressed and corrected by the time the FAA investigated it.

Petitt's attorney, Lee Seham, rejected Dickson's argument that his involvement with Petitt and the decision to ground her was limited. Seham pointed to a deposition Dickson sat for last year in which Dickson said he had ultimate responsibility over the decision to refer Petitt for a mental evaluation and called it a "sound course of action."

"For him to say he wasn't really involved and didn't need to disclose this is incredible," Seham said.