Polaneczky: Will TSA supervisor ever be held accountable?

Roger Vanderklok, shown with wife Eleanor, was held for 20 hours and charged with making terroristic threats.

I've got my fingers crossed so tightly for Roger Vanderklok, I think I've busted some knuckles.

That's how much I want his lawsuit against the Transportation Security Administration to go to trial already. I have no doubt a jury would hand Vanderklok some long-overdue justice.

As a happy consequence, a ruling in Vanderklok's favor could change the way travelers experience airport-security screening.

I'll get to that in a sec. But first, let me refresh your memory about Vanderklok's saga, which I detailed in a column last year.

On Jan. 26, 2013, Vanderklok, now 60, a Philly architect and avid runner, went through the security screening area of Terminal B at Philly International Airport. He was scheduled to board an early morning flight to Miami for a half-marathon.

Packed in his bag were a short length of capped PVC pipe, which held his heart-monitoring watch, and a stack of Power Bars.

The items looked suspicious to a TSA agent, who asked his supervisor, Charles Kieser, to take a look. For 30 minutes, screeners checked the bag before giving it the OK.

Vanderklok, who had remained calm but felt he had not been treated professionally by the increasingly agitated Kieser, told him he wanted to file a complaint.

Kieser left the area, allegedly to retrieve the proper form for Vanderklok to do so. Instead, he summoned Philadelphia police and told them that Vanderklok had made a bomb threat.

On Kieser's word alone, Vanderklok was held for 20 hours before being charged with threatening the placement of a bomb and making terroristic threats.

At trial, Vanderklok's attorney, Thomas Malone, proved that Kieser's story had more holes than a golf course, and Vanderklok was acquitted.

The acquittal happened so fast, Malone didn't even need to play for the court the very damning surveillance videos from Terminal B on the day of Vanderklok's run-in with Kieser. They showed major discrepancies between Kieser's sworn testimony about what happened and what the videos actually showed.

Kieser, unbelievably, remains employed by the TSA.

Said Malone, "He should've been fired and charged with perjury."

Not that Malone didn't try, in the latter case, to persuade Philly District Attorney Seth Williams to charge Kieser with lying under oath. But Williams declined to prosecute.

Vanderklok subsequently filed a federal lawsuit against the police department and the TSA alleging violation of his civil rights.

The case against the police was dismissed at an early stage because the police had acted on the belief that Kieser had told them the truth about Vanderklok's bomb threat.

But last month, U.S. District Judge Gerald Pappert ruled that there was enough evidence potentially favorable to Vanderklok that his case against Kieser could proceed to trial.

That was supposed to happen last Thursday, but at the last minute, the TSA appealed the ruling. So Vanderklok's quest for justice has once again been kicked down the road.

By the time it lands in appeals court, about four years will have passed since Kieser used his authority to throw Vanderklok into a Kafkaesque nightmare.

Just because he could.

"I was scared to death. I have never been arrested in my life, never had handcuffs put on," Vanderklok told me about his detention in a cell at the 18th District at 55th and Pine. He had no idea why he was there, no way of letting loved ones know what had become of him until he was arraigned a day later for his alleged threat to aviation safety.

"Throughout the night, I was in a dark place; no one knew where I was," he said. "I thought, 'I could fall off the face of the Earth right now, and no one would know it.' "

Luckily for us all, Vanderklok can afford the significant legal costs of seeing his lawsuit through the appeals process: If he wins his subsequent lawsuit, it could set a legal precedent regarding the public's First Amendment right to free speech while in the presence of the TSA.

Currently, that right - astoundingly - is in question. A verdict in Vanderklok's favor would both vindicate his actions that miserable day in Terminal B but also clarify for bullies like Kieser precisely where travelers' constitutional rights begin and the TSA's authority ends.

Considering how long Vanderklok's saga is dragging on, I wondered what his reaction would be if Kieser or someone else from the TSA were to show remorse for the hell they put him through.

If the apology were sincere, would Vanderklok drop his suit?

"Now?" he said. "No. The time for an apology would have been a few years ago. If they were to apologize now, it would only be because they were finally out of legal options."

Meantime, Vanderklok's schedule is jammed with airline flights for both business and pleasure; he has six flights scheduled in the next 12 days alone.

"The security screenings have gone fine," he said - and, no, he has not once run into Kieser. "But to be honest, I hate to fly with luggage anymore."

These days, he said, it's more like, "Just give me my briefcase and get me out of here."

polaner@phillynews.com

215-854-2217 @RonniePhilly

Blog: ph.ly/RonnieBlog

Columns: ph.ly/Ronnie