A worker arrested at Kennedy Airport after a background-check investigation.
127 Airport Workers Face Charges of Hiding Past
By ANDY NEWMAN
They were baggage handlers, luggage screeners, security guards and aircraft mechanics. Their criminal pasts included armed robbery, sexual assault of a child, drug dealing and identity theft.
But all of the 127 current and former workers at La Guardia and Kennedy International Airports who were recently arrested, or who face arrest, had one thing in common, federal, state and local authorities said yesterday: they had received security clearances at the airports either by lying about their criminal histories or by presenting fake identification.
The crackdown was the biggest yet in a series of fine-toothed background checks on workers at major American airports this year. So far, more than 900 workers have been arrested or indicted, including 104 at three airports in the Washington area; 66 in Charlotte, N.C.; and 21 at Newark Liberty International Airport last week.
The investigation, which lasted for nine months, also revealed some of the most gaping holes in the pre-9/11 security system at New York's airports. For instance, before the 2001 terror attacks, workers who had to be cleared to receive security badges were not routinely fingerprinted, the authorities said. Social Security numbers were not verified. And in some cases, employers apparently took applicants at their word when they said they had no criminal history.
According to the Queens district attorney's office, 83 of the 127 accused workers had been arrested as of last night. The rest were being sought on warrants. About 70 of the workers were currently employed at the airports. Nine of the 127 had outstanding warrants for other crimes.
Officials involved in the New York roundup stressed that none of the workers, who ranged in age from 22 to 62, appeared to be terrorists. But the unfitness they demonstrated for access to the internal workings of the airports was impressive, and raised the possibility that a terrorist with false identification could have gotten such access.
Jose Almodovar, a supervisor at a cleaning company at La Guardia Airport who had access to the tarmac, was actually Mario Jimenez, who had once been on the most-wanted list in Middlesex County, N.J., on cocaine charges, prosecutors said. Lawrence Parris, 33, a plane mechanic for Spirit Airlines, had neglected to tell his employer about a 1994 robbery conviction. Another worker was an immigrant who had been deported for a felony and was wanted for illegal re-entry.
"These individuals represent a significant vulnerability to the security of our air transportation system," said Roslynn R. Mauskopf, the United States attorney for the Eastern District of New York.
The authorities said that after investigating all 40,000 badgeholders at Kennedy and La Guardia, they felt confident that there was no one still working there with an undetected criminal past or a false identity.
They also said that safeguards were now in place that would prevent future security lapses. Since December 2001, a fingerprint check has been mandatory. "It is no longer hit or miss," Ms. Mauskopf said.
And since a few months ago, the Social Security number offered by every applicant for a security badge has been verified with the Social Security Administration.
Ms. Mauskopf said that some workers were able to get away with making their Social Security numbers up out of whole cloth, while others stole them — one 26-year-old was using the Social Security number of an 8-year-old child.
The problems with the background-checking system arose from the fact that there were many parties involved in it and no one coordinating them, Ms. Mauskopf said. The security badges were issued by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the airports, or by the United States Customs Service. But in most cases, those agencies were relying on background checks conducted by employers, like airlines, security companies and cleaning contractors.
"There was no uniformity" in the process, Ms. Mauskopf said.
Deputy Chief Robert Caron of the Port Authority Police Department said that regardless of who did them, "the background checks that were done were done under the federal guidelines." But, Chief Caron added, "we found out after 9/11 that maybe this wasn't sufficient enough."
The 127 workers, if convicted, face a variety of penalties on top of punishment for any underlying criminal offenses they may have lied about. Misusing a Social Security number or lying about a criminal record can result in up to five years in prison, while illegally re-entering the country after being deported for a serious felony is punishable by up to 20 years. Twenty of the workers face deportation, Ms. Mauskopf said.
Ms. Mauskopf was asked at the news conference at Kennedy Airport yesterday whether the workers' deceptions ever put travelers in danger. "Whenever you have people who are not trustworthy," she replied, "who have demonstrated as part of a critical security background investigation that they can't live up even to the requirements of that background investigation, I think it raises issues about their trustworthiness and their access to areas."