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Air Marshals Speak of Sexism, Suicide, Bigotry within Community

Former air marshal Steve Theodoropoulos. ABC News(NEW YORK) -- Managers at the Federal Air Marshal Service regularly made fun of blacks, Latinos and gays, took taxpayer-paid trips to visit families and vacation spots, and acted like a "bunch of school kid punks," current and former air marshals tell ABC News.

One supervisor was even photographed in 2006 asleep on a flight, carrying a loaded pistol, the air marshals said.

In interviews aired Tuesday night on World News with Diane Sawyer and Nightline, the air marshals describe a culture of incompetence, bigotry and sexism on the part of senior managers at some offices that has endured for the last decade and raises questions about the professionalism and performance of the force entrusted with preventing acts of in-flight terrorism.

"Sooner or later, if you do not have people operating at their peak efficiency, then you take the risk that a terrorist is going to get away with his dirty deed," said Sen. Bill Nelson, D.-Florida, who asked for an inspector general's investigation of the allegations made by current and former air marshals two years ago.

"The culture is, hate African Americans, hate females, go after gays and lesbians cause we don't like the way they think," said former air marshal Steve Theodoropoulos.

It was Theodoropoulos, working in the Orlando air marshal office, who provided a photograph to reporters in 2010 of a "distorted air marshal Jeopardy game board" with classifications that were racial slurs aimed at minority and gay air marshals.

"Category pickle smokers was directly aimed at gay males," he said of the board, which he discovered in a training room at the air marshal office in Orlando.  The air marshals say it was removed in 2009.

Other categories included "Our Gang" for African-Americans, "Geraldo Rivera" for Latinos, and "Ellen DeGeneres" for gay female air marshals.

One of the five women listed on the board later tried to commit suicide, according to Theodoropoulos and other air marshals familiar with the case.

Air marshals who were military veterans were listed as "Operators" because they were often called away for training and perceived to be shirking their flight assignments.

"Anybody that's not like them, they're against," said Theodoropoulos.  "I mean, how do you operate under those conditions?"

Sen. Nelson says the attitude calls into question the judgments and training of air marshals involved in the incident.

"This behavior went well over the line," said Sen. Nelson.  "This is unprofessional, this is unacceptable and it should have been corrected two years ago when I first reported it to the Inspector General."

The Inspector General's report is scheduled to be made public on Thursday, but according to an advance copy obtained by ABC News, the investigation found "a great deal of tension, mistrust and dislike between non-supervisory and supervisory personnel in field offices around the country."

[CLICK HERE TO READ EXCERPTS FROM THE INSPECTOR GENERAL'S REPORT]

The report, which was triggered by a CNN broadcast about the Jeopardy board in 2010, concludes that the allegations, perceived and real, "posed a difficult challenge for the agency" but, according to a survey of air marshals, "do not appear to have compromised the service's mission."

The survey found that 76 percent of air marshals asked said "people they work with cooperate to get the job done."

But the Inspector General also warned that "these allegations add unnecessary distraction at all levels at a time when mission tempo is high and many in the agency are becoming increasingly concerned about workforce burnout and fatigue."

John Pistole, who oversees the air marshals as head of the Transportation Security Administration, said security had not been compromised by the behavior of some air marshals.  "Absolutely not," Pistole told ABC News on Tuesday.  "The national security mission is always paramount."

"TSA took a proactive approach to the issues raised and has developed and implemented solutions ahead of the conclusion of the investigation," said the TSA in a statement to ABC News.

But some members of Congress questioned the report's conclusion that the mission was not compromised.  The Inspector General's report also failed to fully investigate many of the more damning allegations made against air marshal managers.

"Our review does not support a finding of widespread discrimination and retaliation" within the Federal Air Marshal Service, the report said.

Other air marshals, still working undercover on flights and unable to reveal their names publicly, alleged that managers regularly scheduled themselves on flights so they could visit family or vacation spots.  In one example, the air marshals provided a photograph of a manager who arranged to fly to Brussels at Christmas time, and then jumped a fence to sit next to the Baby Jesus in a nativity crèche in the city's main square.

Theodoropoulos has had his own issues, stemming from an altercation with a bartender that led to his dismissal from the air marshals after a 20-year career in law enforcement.  He and his union say the government used a relatively minor incident as a way to get rid of a whistleblower and send a message to other air marshals to keep quiet. 

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Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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