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Home loss leads to job loss for veteran federal air marshal

By Mike M. Ahlers, CNN
  • An air marshal says he's losing job because of financial problems
  • Disclosed his problems to TSA as required
  • Lawyer says TSA has created "Catch-22"

Washington (CNN) -- Some people lose their homes because they have lost their jobs.

John Gowan, a Federal air marshal, says he's losing his job because he is losing his home.

The Transportation Security Administration this month notified Gowan, 43, that it is firing him because his security clearance was revoked, a direct result of bank foreclosures on his home and two investment properties, and related debts.

Federal rules require employees with security clearances to remain solvent -- or to disclose their debts -- so they will be free from the "potential for coercion," or bribes.

Aware of the rules, Gowan notified his boss in the spring of 2008 of his financial problems brought on by the real estate collapse and a divorce, he said. He again disclosed his money woes several months later during a routine five-year review of his security clearance, listing the pending foreclosures and other debts.

His boss vouched for him, telling investigators that Gowan's disclosure of his money problems would prevent someone from blackmailing him, records show.

Gowan and his attorney say they believe the TSA is firing Gowan not because of concerns about his finances, as stated in government documents, but because of lingering doubts or anger agency officials may have about accusations from a former girlfriend, who accused Gowan of breaking into her home and of domestic violence.

In February of 2009, Gowan, a supervisor in the air marshal's Orlando field office, went to his former girlfriend's home to retrieve his possessions. He was accompanied by local sheriffs who he had requested to accompany him to serve as witnesses.

The girlfriend accused him of unlawfully entering her home and violating an injunction for protection against domestic abuse.

The injunction was later dismissed, a judge ruling that there was insufficient evidence against Gowan. Subsequently, the TSA said the allegations were not a factor in the decision to revoke Gowan's security clearance.

"You provided documentation that mitigated the (ex-girlfriend's allegations) to a level that does not adversely affect national security," the TSA's Office of Security wrote.

But financial concerns did merit the revocation of Gowan's security clearance, the TSA wrote.

"I really think that John's firing comes from a combination of things, and I do believe that a lot initially hinged on the domestic violence allegation that ultimately wasn't proved truthful," said John Zielinski, Gowan's attorney. "Because that (domestic violence) has such a stigma on it, even if it wasn't true, it put John in a negative light. And that has conveyed ever after."

Zielinski said the reason cited by the TSA for Gowan's pending dismissal -- financial concerns -- are meritless, saying they were known by the TSA long ago, but were invoked only after the February 2009 allegations from his ex-girlfriend.

Zielinski and Gowan say they are particularly riled by the TSA's findings that Gowan had failed to take actions to mitigate his debts, had taken on new debts, and had increased his mortgage delinquencies. The first two allegations are false, he said.

Gowan said he lost $172,000 of his own money on the three properties, spending $70,000 to $80,000 trying to save the two investment properties from foreclosure. He said "new delinquencies" cited by TSA had actually been disclosed in 2008, and did not result in his dismissal at the time.

As for the "increased in delinquencies" cited by the TSA, Gowan said the increase is a direct result of his being placed on unpaid administrative leave.

The TSA created a "Catch-22" scenario, attorney Zielinski said. As long as Gowan remains suspended without pay, the TSA will be able to show that his delinquent mortgage payments are increasing, he wrote in court documents. "The agency has helped to create additional delinquencies that now form the basis for its continued revocation of (Gowan's) security status," Zielinski wrote.

Gowan apparently isn't the only air marshal whose financial problems threatened their jobs, records show. In March of 2009, the TSA issued a policy statement saying that in consideration of the "current economic climate," foreclosures and bankruptcies would not automatically disqualify individuals from working with the TSA.

Indeed, Gowan says he has records of seven other air marshals at the Orlando field office who have had their homes foreclosed or have suffered short sales of homes, some after voluntarily taking transfers to or from other TSA offices.

But Gowan evidently is the only air marshal who lost his clearance, and is losing his job, because of financial concerns, he said.

The TSA declined to discuss Gowan's case, saying it does not comment on personnel matters. Nor would it release information about the number of air marshals who lost their security clearance or jobs for financial reasons.

Gowan said he also believes the TSA pressed the case against him because of a confrontation he had with an Orange County sheriff while removing furniture from his girlfriend's house. According to a TSA incident report, Gowan became "unprofessional" when told he could not remove any more furniture, twice sticking his hands out toward the deputies and stating "Go ahead and arrest me, take me to jail!"

Gowan acknowledges that he confronted the sheriff and made the statement, but denied being unprofessional, saying he was "challenging the position he was taking with regards to the statute or the law."

Gowan says he is appealing his firing, and his attorney said they are contemplating a lawsuit.