Monday, April 29, 2002

Airport sweeps target employees

Hundreds arrested since 9-11

By Jonathan D. Salant
The Associated Press

        WASHINGTON — Hundreds of employees with access to high-security areas of airports have been arrested on charges such as using phony Social Security numbers, lying about past criminal convictions or being in the United States illegally, government records show.

        Federal law enforcement officials said they have arrested or indicted more than 450 workers at 15 airports in the investigation known as Operation Tarmac.

    Law enforcement officials have arrested or indicted 455 airport employees at 15 airports since Sept. 11, according to federal prosecutors and the Transportation Department inspector general. A list:

    • April 23: 138 employees at Reagan National Airport and Washington Dulles International Airport in the Washington, D.C., area are charged with fraudulently obtaining airport security badges.

    • April 23: 10 workers at Baltimore-Washington International Airport are indicted, seven of them for failing to disclose prior felony convictions.

    • April 18: 33 workers at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix are indicted for using false Social Security numbers.

    • April 10: Nine workers are arrested at Lindbergh Field in San Diego on immigration charges.

    • March 26: 25 employees at San Francisco International Airport and San Jose International Airport are arrested on charges ranging from submitting false Social Security numbers to lyingabout felony convictions.

    • March 8: 66 people are indicted for lying or using fake documents to get jobs at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport in North Carolina.

    • March 5: Three workers at Sacramento International Airport in California are charged with lying to obtain security badges.

    • Feb. 27: 20 current and former workers at Logan International Airport in Boston are charged with lying to get their jobs or security badges.

    • Feb. 20: Five employees at Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport are arrested for lying on job applications.

    • Jan. 29: 27 employees at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas are indicted on charges including making false statements and using phony Social Security numbers.

    • Jan. 18: 20 employees are arrested at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on immigration charges.

    • Dec. 20: 30 employees are arrested at the Portland, Ore., airport on charges of using fake documents to get their jobs.

    • Dec. 11: 69 workers at Salt Lake City International Airport are arrested for lying on their job applications, falsely claiming citizenship, or using phony Social Security cards.

   On the Net:
   Justice Department:
   Transportation Department inspector general:

        Many of those arrested are illegal immigrants who could be deported, while others face prison terms of up to 10 years or fines of up to $250,000, say officials of the departments of Justice and Transportation.

        “We will not stop until we are satisfied we have a work force that the traveling public can trust,” Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said.

        The workers arrested had security badges allowing them to get onto planes, ramps, runways and cargo areas, law enforcement officials said. They were employed by private companies, such as those which clean airplanes or operate airport restaurants.

        While law enforcement officials said none of those arrested has terrorist links, some aviation experts said the workers were in positions to help smuggle bombs or weapons aboard aircraft, if they wished to do so.

        Before Sept. 11, government officials did not give much attention to the threat that an airport employee could hide a bomb on a plane or help someone else to do it, said Mary Schiavo, a former inspector general at the Transportation Department.

        Efforts since the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 and the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800 focused on trying to prevent terrorists from putting bombs in suitcases, said Schiavo, now a lawyer representing victims of airplane accidents.

        Even after Argenbright Security was fined $1 million in 2000 for failing to sufficiently check its employees' backgrounds, the issue was not a high priority of law enforcement, said Todd Zinser, a deputy inspector general for the department.

        “Of course, Sept. 11 changed that,” Mr. Zinser said. “It was much easier for us to develop these coalitions to look at these problems. At the same time, you had the Justice Department more interested in pursuing these cases because of the national emergency.”

        A union official believes the effort will not improve security.

        “These are people who are working hard, who are paying their taxes and who want to contribute to America,” said Eliseo Medina, executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union. “They're not a security threat by any stretch of the imagination.”

        Several Justice Department agencies are involved in the investigation, along with the Transportation Department inspector general and new Transportation Security Administration.

        But Zinser said that “what bothers us is that law enforcement has to go out and find these. There aren't other checks in the system that are being used to make sure these gaps don't exist.”

        FAA Administrator Jane Garvey in October ordered background checks of an estimated 750,000 airport and airline employees who could enter secured areas of airports. The checks are supposed to be completed by December.

        “We're just trying to make sure the rules are followed,” Zinser said. “They exist to make sure security is as good as it can be. If you don't enforce the rules, then you have these potential threats.”


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