Officials in charge of an anti-terrorism investigation launched after Sept. 11 at Southern California airports said Friday that their effort has culminated in federal charges against 104 workers.
Local authorities had withheld details Thursday when word first leaked out of an unspecified number of arrests made as part of a nationwide crackdown on workers who fraudulently obtained security badges.
The badges provide access to airplanes, runways, cargo holds and other sensitive areas.
The charges followed a nine-month inquiry that focused on the employment records of tens of thousands of personnel at Los Angeles International Airport, John Wayne Airport in Orange County, and airports in Ontario, Long Beach and Palm Springs. The investigation is part of a broader nationwide effort begun after last year's terrorist attacks transformed airport and airline security into a national priority.
In recent months, authorities had hit almost 100 airports in Washington, D.C.; Salt Lake City; Boston; the San Francisco Bay area; and elsewhere, but the more than 40,000 workers checked in Southern California were believed to be the most to date in what the Immigration and Naturalization Service has dubbed "Operation Tarmac."
The predawn sweeps that began Thursday had resulted in 81 arrests by midday Friday, authorities said. Officials were still seeking 23 fugitives.
None of the suspects has any known link to terrorism. But officials voiced concern that their sham status could have subjected the workers to blackmail.
"We have to take a proactive approach to identify those who may pose a threat to public safety and national security,'' said U.S. Atty. Debra W. Yang, the top federal prosecutor in Los Angeles.
The majority staffed custodial, maintenance or food service jobs, authorities said, though some were security screeners and baggage handlers. A few worked directly for major airlines, including Continental, Delta, American and United.
Virtually all of the suspects face charges of using phony Social Security numbers to obtain their high-access badges, which allowed many holders to bypass security checkpoints.
Most charged are illegal immigrants, but some are legal U.S. residents and even citizens who used identity theft--or lied on job application forms--to conceal criminal records or for other reasons.
A maintenance worker at LAX allegedly used a false Social Security number so he could use his real Social Security number to collect benefits.
Another LAX employee is charged with lying about a conviction for carrying a concealed weapon.
Offenders could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted on federal charges of document fraud. In addition, noncitizens could be subject to deportation.
Along with the 104 people charged in federal court, a dozen other airport workers face state charges for fraudulent use of Social Security numbers on state Department of Motor Vehicle applications, said Carole Peterson, assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles.
The presence of fraud in the nationwide investigation varied considerably. At LAX, for instance, where investigators scrutinized the employment records of almost 40,000 workers, only 46--about 0.1%--were charged.
The percentage was considerably higher at John Wayne Airport in Orange County, where 51 workers--2.3% of the 2,210 badge-holders scrutinized--were accused of using fraudulent Social Security numbers to obtain their positions.
Six workers at Ontario International Airport were charged, and one employee was charged at Long Beach Airport. No violators were found at Palm Springs Regional Airport.
As officials announced the charges Friday at the federal building downtown, protesters gathered to condemn the arrests, arguing that officials were treating undocumented workers like terrorists.