Assuming the mantle of acting on behalf of the President Barack Obama, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has taken the unprecedented step of firing the Administrator of the Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation (SLSDC), Collister “Terry” Johnson, Jr., who was appointed by President George W. Bush to a seven-year term in October of 2006.
The Administrator of the Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation is appointed to a seven-year term by statute. Some federal jobs such as Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Chairman of the Federal Reserve are given appointments that either last longer than the length of a president’s term of office, or are appointed for a term that is not coincident with the president’s term to remove those jobs from partisan considerations.
Since the seven-year term was adopted, every administration of either party has respected the Congress’ wish to remove the SLSDC administrator from partisan patronage and no SLSDC administrator has ever been fired during the course of their term of office. The pressures of partisanship are particularly acute in Washington now as politicians head into an election that will determine control the White House and Congress.
Another part of the partisan political backdrop to the Johnson firing is the political importance of the Great Lakes region in the 2012 presidential and congressional sweepstakes. Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania are sure to be battleground states in the presidential election and seven U.S. Senate races in the eight Great Lakes states raise the stakes still further. The Chicago-based Obama campaign and Sec. LaHood, a former back-bench congressman from Illinois, are no-doubt sensitive to the political dimension of Great Lakes-Seaway policy.
Yet, previous administrations have kept the SLSDC Administrator out of the partisan infighting. Stan Parris, a former Republican congressman was appointed by President George H.W. Bush in 1991 and served well into the Clinton Administration unmolested. Albert Jacquez was appointed by President Bill Clinton, but spent most of his seven years as an employee of the administration of George W. Bush.
Great Lakes-Seaway News has been gathering details of Johnson’s firing since it first heard reports of LaHood’s termination letter to Johnson dated May 8. Some “old media” newspaper outlets were reporting today that Johnson had “stepped down” from his Seaway post.
Great Lakes-Seaway News has learned that these reports are not true.
In fact, a chronology of events reveals that Johnson had spent Monday at the Port of Milwaukee where he spoke with Port officials, terminal operators, cargo interests, representatives of the International Longshoremen’s Association, and representatives of the Wisconsin congressional delegation about new ways of developing trade through the Saint Lawrence Seaway. The Port of Milwaukee’s longshoremen, ILA local 815, presented Johnson with a sweatshirt in recognition of Johnson’s strong relationship with organized labor as leader of the SLSDC. Johnson arrived home late on the Monday evening and made plans with his wife for their honeymoon which is scheduled for later this week.
The SLSDC’s chief of staff was informed by the Office of the Secretary that Johnson was being summoned to meet with Secretary Ray LaHood’s on Tuesday, May 8. Johnson arrived at the Department of Transportation’s headquarters building where he was confronted by four uniformed security guards who asked Johnson to surrender his DOT credentials, pass through a metal detector, and accompany them to LaHood’s office. There Johnson met with LaHood and LaHood asked for Johnson to resign. Johnson refused to resign whereupon LaHood handed Johnson a one paragraph termination letter citing no cause his dismissal.
Not only was Johnson apparently not fired for cause, somewhat cryptically no reason whatsoever was given for Johnson's dismissal. In fact, Johnson is very highly regarded in Seaway circles as a forceful and effective advocate for the Saint Lawrence Seaway and job creation in the Great Lakes-Seaway maritime industry.
Johnson had been the target of petty harassment by senior DOT officials for more than a year. The Office of the Secretary had security guards lock Johnson out of his SLSDC office and insisted that Johnson sit in an office in the DOT building down the street from the SLSDC staff. Johnson first publicly revealed the harassment against him in an interview published in the December 7, 2011 edition of Great Lakes-Seaway News.
Congressional reaction to the Obama administration’s termination letter to Johnson may be strong. The Congress does not take violations of federal laws to protect federal employees from partisan firings lightly and such is likely to be true in the case of the Administrator of the Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation.