When the budget sequester started in March, the Federal Aviation Administration announced that it would soon shutter 149 airport towers nationwide.
Enter U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, the South Florida Democrat best known for her sequined hat and matching ensembles. Wilson is also famous for her passion -- whether speaking out for inner city children, Haitian refugees, or, in this case, air traffic controllers facing layoffs.
On April 4, Wilson held a press conference to protest the threatened closing of the North Perry airport in Pembroke Pines. Wilson gave a rousing speech -- sometimes over the noise of airplanes flying overhead -- against the FAA’s plan.
Wilson said fighting the sequester was "the civil rights movement of 2013 ... It's going to hurt people, people will die, people will suffer, people will lose their homes, people will lose their tax break."
The next day, the FAA announced that it would delay closures slated for Florida and other states until June 15. Lots of politicians expressed relief including U.S. Reps Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, and C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores.
But Wilson’s press statement had a different tenor: she took credit for the FAA’s decision though only for the airport in Pembroke Pines:
"Congresswoman Frederica Wilson successfully postpones closure of the North Perry airport tower," announced the headline.
The press release continued: "Following the Congresswoman’s month-long campaign to save the tower, which included fact finding, speeches, official requests, and legislation, Congresswoman Wilson was notified, this morning, by FAA officials that the tower had been granted a temporary reprieve from closure...."
There is no dispute that Wilson fought the closure and a day after her press conference, the FAA announced the closure delay. But should she get credit here for prompting the FAA to act?
The lawsuits against the FAA
Soon after the FAA made its announcement in March that it intended to close airports, the airports began filing lawsuits. About 20 were filed and plaintiffs argued that the closures would jeopardize safety.
The clock was ticking: Closures were set to start April 7, prompting lawyers to start filing emergency motions.
We interviewed Peter Kirsch, an attorney who represents multiple plaintiffs. He said plaintiff lawyers from three firms had conference calls with federal officials on April 5. The lawyers reached an agreement in the early afternoon and that led to the FAA’s announcement that it would delay closures until June 15, Kirsch said.
"The FAA decision was part of an agreement among the lawyers that the FAA would delay the closure date if we would agree to withdraw our emergency motion for a stay, which is like a preliminary injunction or restraining order," Kirsch told PolitiFact Florida.
On Friday afternoon, the FAA issued a press release stating that it was delaying tower closures nationwide. "This additional time will allow the agency to attempt to resolve multiple legal challenges to the closure decisions."
Kirsch said several factors were pressing on FAA administrators. "I think they recognized that they would not accomplish the closure of these towers in an orderly fashion .... There is no question that this particular dispute, this battle is being played out administratively, being played out in courts, and being played out in Congress. No one of those is independent of the others."
Airport officials told PolitiFact Florida that they were stunned at the speed that the FAA was attempting to move. When an airport has a modest construction project, the FAA requires a safety plan that can take six months to complete, said Lawrence Krauter, chief executive officer of an airport in Spokane, Wash., that filed one of the lawsuits. But due to the sequester, the FAA was attempting to pull off a major nationwide change even faster.
That the FAA wasn’t ready to pull this off was evident in a conference call between the FAA and airport officials nationwide less than a week before the closures were slated to start. The FAA couldn’t answer basic questions about the timing of closures and procedures for local airports taking over, Krauter told PolitiFact.
"I don’t think there was enough time that the FAA could respond to all of those things. I think they made good decision step back," Krauter said. "I think that call was pivotal in establishing there were some fundamental issues and there wasn’t time to coordinate."
Wilson on tower closures and sequestration
Shortly after she issued her press release on April 5, we spoke to Wilson by telephone to ask why she was taking credit.
Wilson said she spoke with Roderick Hall, FAA Assistant Administrator for Government and Industry Affairs, about the cuts that morning after the FAA had threatened to lock the North Perry tower if Broward didn’t sign an agreement.
"We gave them a threat," Wilson said. "The threat was if they came to shut the tower down I would personally be there to stop them. ... I told him I am a protester of the civil rights movement. He said, ‘Congresswoman I am aware of your advocacy."’
She said Hall called back later in the day and told her about the decision to delay the closures.
"He said ‘Congresswoman go ahead, you can take the credit. It's from pressure, pressure pressure from Congresspeople like yourself," Wilson said. "He didn’t mention anything about lawsuits."
Hall didn’t respond to messages we left on his cellphone, and the FAA pointed us to their press release that didn’t mention Wilson or congressional pressure.
Four members of Wilson’s staff, including legislative director Justin Talbot Zorn, joined PolitiFact Florida on a conference call Monday to explain why they believe Wilson deserved the credit.
Wilson’s staff said that from the moment she learned about the closures at North Perry and Opa-Locka she had fought them and sent two letters to the FAA protesting their plan. Then she held the press conference Thursday, April 4.
On Friday, Wilson’s office was contacted by Kent George, Broward County’s aviation director. George’s staff had received an agreement from the FAA Thursday night. The FAA gave the county a deadline of 3 p.m. to sign the agreement, though George said it wasn’t clear why the FAA wanted to charge $5,280 a month. (The county had a separate agreement to pay the workers.)
"They said if the agreement wasn’t signed they intended to change the locks on the tower at midnight on the 6th," George told PolitiFact. That’s when George’s office contacted local members of Congress.
Wilson got on the phone with Hall to protest the closure and "he said he see what he could do by 3 p.m," Zorn said.
Hall called back later that afternoon, said Zorn, who was in on the call with Wilson and recounted it for PolitiFact.
"This second call, he said, ‘Thank you so much for your call this morning. We understand how important this is and how passionate you are about this. I have good news for you...’ " he said. Then Hall told Wilson about the delay. "So you can claim this as a win. You can take as much credit as you want to take for this."
The scope of the phone call was only about North Perry -- Hall didn’t discuss the lawsuits or the FAA’s nationwide decision.
So Wilson did take credit for North Perry and issue the press release.
Pressure from Congress
We can’t be certain exactly what was said between Hall and Wilson but even if we assume that he did give her the sense that she could take credit, does it seem reasonable that Wilson’s pressure caused the FAA’s decision? By that Friday, the FAA was facing lawsuits nationwide and protest letters from politicians across the country.
Airport officials we interviewed say bipartisan congressional pressure could have played a role, but there is no dispute that the litigation was the driving force.
"I think the litigation, I think the media coverage, as you know, was pretty intensive, and certainly calls and letters from Congress have an impact on any federal agency," said Spencer Dickerson, president of the American Association of Airport Executives, which sued the FAA said.
In a press release Wilson took credit for the FAA’s decision to postpone closing an airport tower in her district.
"Congresswoman Frederica Wilson successfully postpones closure of the North Perry airport tower," stated the headline. The press release also stated "Following the Congresswoman’s month-long campaign to save the tower, which included fact finding, speeches, official requests, and legislation, Congresswoman Wilson was notified, this morning, by FAA officials that the tower had been granted a temporary reprieve from closure...."
The press release can leave readers with the misleading impression of cause and effect: Wilson protested for a month, and the FAA caved and postponed this particular airport tower closure. But there was no separate FAA decision for the North Perry tower.
In explaining its nationwide decision, the FAA wrote that the delay would buy it time "to attempt to resolve multiple legal challenges to the closure decisions." While congressional pressure nationwide could have played a role in the FAA’s decision, clearly the lawsuits seeking immediate action from the courts was the driving factor. Even if Wilson had ignored the tower battle, the FAA likely would have taken action at North Perry and the other sites.
We’re not evaluating Wilson’s claim that an FAA official whose job includes fostering relationships with Congress gave her the impression that she deserved credit -- we are evaluating her claim that her actions led to the FAA’s decision. We rate this claim Mostly False.