A federal agency has made a preliminary ruling that the chief executive at BWI Marshall Airport, while in his previous job, retaliated against a whistle-blower who reported runway safety concerns to the Federal Aviation Administration.
The Occupational Health and Safety Administration made a preliminary finding that Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, while it was led by current BWI Executive Director Ricky D. Smith Sr., demoted field maintenance manager Adul-Malik Ali after he complained to an FAA inspector about a lack of de-icing chemicals and insufficient staffing to keep runways clear during snowy weather.
In a letter dated this week, OSHA found Ali's whistle-blowing actions were protected under federal law and that retaliation was a violation. The agency said his reinstatement "is warranted."
The job safety agency's finding follows a determination by the FAA in 2015, shortly after Smith was hired by the administration of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan to run BWI, that Hopkins had failed to keep its runways safe.
Aviation regulators fined the Cleveland Airport and its owner, the city of Cleveland, $735,000 for failing to keep its runways clear of ice and snow. The city later agreed to pay $200,000 and to improve its runway safety practices.
Smith, formerly chief operating officer at BWI, returned to head the Baltimore airport after Hogan fired Paul J. Wiedefeld, an appointee of Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley who had held the position since 2009. Wiedefeld has since been hired as general manager of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and is leading efforts to rebuild its ailing Metrorail system.
In its letter, OSHA said Ali's actions, which telling superiors about deficient supplies and staffing and meeting with FAA officials, were contributing factors in the airport's decision to accuse him of being intoxicated, taking away his city vehicle and assigning him to what OSHA called "derogatory work."
OSHA wrote that Cleveland "has not demonstrated by clear and convincing evidence that it would have taken the same unfavorable actions in the absences of [Ali's] protected activities." The agency gave Cleveland officials 10 days to challenge its decision and provide reasons Ali should not be reinstated.
According to a complaint Ali filed with the Department of Labor, Smith demoted him the day after Ali met with an FAA inspector and informed him that the Cleveland airport was violating an agreement with the federal agency on minimum levels of staffing to keep the runways free of ice and snow.
Ali alleged that after his demotion he was moved to a "mop closet" as an office and assigned make-work tasks such as counting trash cans.
Chandra Subodh, Ali's lawyer, said that while Ali is still suffering the consequences of retaliation, Smith has moved on with his career.
"Certainly those responsible for oversight of BWI ought to have concerns about the allegations and evidence of his conduct in Cleveland," Subodh said.
Neither Jonathan Dean, spokesman for Smith and BWI, nor Erin Henson, spokeswoman for the airport's parent Department of Transportation, would comment on the findings.