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Crackdown sweeps through D.C. airports

By Times wires and staff report
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 24, 2002

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Close to 100 workers at airports serving the nation's capital were arrested Tuesday on charges they lied to obtain security badges that gave them broad access to sensitive areas.

Those arrested included construction workers, janitors, food workers and at least two baggage screeners.

Federal officials said that by day's end, or perhaps today, they expected to have arrested at least 138 employees in a sweep called "Fly Trap" at Washington Dulles International Airport and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

At least one employee arrested already had been deported from the United States but illegally returned and obtained an airport job, authorities said.

Ten other arrests -- also on charges of immigration violations and falsified employment applications -- occurred at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Seven people there had failed to disclose prior felony convictions, prosecutors said.

Attorney General John Ashcroft said the arrests, which followed sealed indictments issued last week by a federal grand jury, "should be a wakeup call for every airport in America." People arrested face up to five years in prison and fines up to $250,000, and immigrants who were caught without proper documentation could be deported.

U.S. Attorney Paul McNulty described Tuesday's raids as an "anti-terrorism initiative" but said authorities have "no evidence at this point of any connection of these individuals to any terrorist organizations."

By the end of the year, the nation's 429 commercial airports must have subjected all employees with security badges to FBI criminal fingerprint checks. Background and fingerprint checks are required immediately for all new employees.

There are 6,000 employees at Tampa International Airport with the badges, and the fingerprint checks on them will be finished well before the year-end deadline, according to Louis Miller, executive director of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority.

Tom Jewsbury, director of operations at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport, said that the fingerprinting equipment had been acquired there several months ago and that the process of rescreening 800 employees was well under way.

Miller said so far as he knew there had been no outside background audits either on airport or airline employees at TIA.

Similar arrests have occurred in recent weeks in Phoenix; Charlotte, N.C.; Las Vegas; Salt Lake City; and San Francisco. In all, about 400 workers have been arrested or indicted since Sept. 11, including those on Tuesday.

"When they found the problems in Salt Lake City, the Department of Justice did their own investigation," Miller said. "They went in to verify (the background checks that) had been done by the airport or the airlines and found problems.

"We wouldn't necessarily know if they audited the airline employees or the ramp people the airlines hire, although I think we would know if they found any problems. I think we would know if they audited airport employees, and we have no indication that they have."

-- Times staff writer Jean Heller contributed to this report.

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