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Air marshal official sidelined for 'culturally insensitive' comment

By Mike M. Ahlers, CNN
John A. Novak of the Federal Air Marshal Service reportedly made a remark about "traveling minstrel shows."
John A. Novak of the Federal Air Marshal Service reportedly made a remark about "traveling minstrel shows."
  • An investigation of the incident is under way
  • The official involved has been reassigned for now, TSA officials say
  • Reached by CNN, the official declines to comment

Washington (CNN) -- A senior administrator with the Federal Air Marshal Service has been removed from his leadership position while the agency investigates a "culturally insensitive" remark he made on a recent conference call, CNN confirmed Tuesday.

John A. Novak, assistant director of the service, dismissed a black colleague's suggestion that the agency hold regional meetings to improve communications by saying such meetings are "nothing but traveling minstrel shows with people with banjos and guitars," said a senior government official familiar with the investigation.

The reference to minstrel shows, in which white performers in blackface lampooned African Americans, was offensive, the senior official said.

"It was dumb. It was stupid. It was egregious," added the official, who spoke on condition of not being identified by name. The official was not authorized to speak about the case publicly.

The controversy comes at a time when the new director of the air marshal service, Robert Bray, is trying to distance the agency from accusations that it is rife with racism, sexism and favoritism.

In recent years, numerous federal air marshals -- plainclothes officers who protect planes from terrorists -- have complained of unequal treatment. Most famously, agents in the Orlando office complained that supervisors there used a "Jeopardy Board" game with terms that were offensive toward homosexuals and others.

Officials with the federal Transportation Security Administration, which includes the air marshal service, confirmed Tuesday that Novak had been reassigned from his post as head of field operations, pending an investigation.

"TSA holds its employees to the highest professional standards," TSA spokesman Nicholas Kimball said. "TSA and the Office of Law Enforcement/Federal Air Marshal Services takes any allegation of misconduct seriously and inappropriate actions will not be tolerated."

The circumstances surrounding Novak's comments, which he made during a conference call two weeks ago, are being investigated by TSA's Office of Inspection, sources within the agency said.

On Monday, Novak apologized in person to two special agents in charge who had been offended by the remark, said Fida Majzoub, another spokesperson for the air marshals service.

Reached by CNN on Tuesday, Novak declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation.

Novak, a former Secret Service Agent, has served with the Federal Air Marshal Service since 2002. Several officials who claimed lengthy work experience with Novak said he has no history of making racist or racially tinged comments. Novak recently helped coordinate a series of meetings with regional offices on how to handle Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints, one official said.

Told of the incident by CNN, Jon Adler, the head of an association that represents rank-and-file air marshals, called the incident "unacceptable."

"We all need to respect and abide by the zero tolerance policy in the government. In an instance where it's coming from an executive, it's sub-zero tolerance," said Adler, national president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association.

"It's incumbent upon them as leaders to set an example, not violate it," Adler said.

An internal e-mail obtained by CNN said Novak will become "acting executive advisor" at the TSA effective November 21, pending a review by an internal board.

CNN Homeland Security Correspondent Jeanne Meserve contributed to this report.