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U.S. Agency Bungled Airport Hiring

LAX and other major facilities move to recheck screeners for criminal backgrounds.

May 16, 2003|Jennifer Oldham | Times Staff Writer

In its rush to get a screener work force in place last fall, the federal aviation security agency lost background questionnaires, failed to run some employee fingerprints through a national crime database and was unable to complete background checks, according to interviews with airport and security officials.

As a result, Los Angeles International Airport and other major U.S. airports say they plan to recheck screeners to ensure that they don't have a criminal past.

The city agency that operates LAX will start re-fingerprinting 2,600 federal employees next week at a cost to the airport of about $143,000. The agency that operates New York City's three airports started rechecking screeners there last month.

Concerns about the effectiveness of the Transportation Security Administration's background process surfaced following reports that screeners at airports around the country, including 26 at LAX, were fired after the agency discovered they had criminal records. The employees, who had access to restricted areas, had been on the job for several months.

The agency disputes allegations that its 55,600 screeners around the country have not undergone thorough background checks, although it acknowledged it has yet to complete a deliberately redundant four-part process.

A congressional official said that as of late April there were still thousands of background checks remaining to be completed nationwide.

"The legal mandate required them to hire a full complement of screeners, and they couldn't meet the deadline and also run with background checks," the official said. "The problem was a lot of people turned up with disqualifying crimes after they finished the background checks."

As the agency worked to complete background checks throughout the spring, law enforcement officials said, hundreds of screeners were fired when the agency discovered they had been convicted of a serious crime within the previous 10 years.

The agency would not release the precise number of those fired for conviction on a list of 37 crimes, including murder, rape, kidnapping, robbery, extortion and aircraft piracy.

The agency took over passenger and baggage screening at the nation's 425 airports last fall from private companies hired by the airlines after Congress enacted a sweeping overhaul of airport security following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

At LAX, officials offered to re-fingerprint the nation's largest screening force several weeks ago because of concerns that not all employees with access to secure areas of the airport had cleared background checks. The agency turned them down.

The agency reversed itself last week, saying that it understood LAX would pay for the process and that it was intended only to put the fingerprints on file, not to double-check screeners' criminal histories. LAX officials dispute this, saying they have valid concerns about the agency's background process.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates LaGuardia, John F. Kennedy International and Newark Liberty International airports, is also re-fingerprinting its 3,000 federal screeners.

"The [agency] initially hired a private security company to begin their background checks, but that company got overwhelmed," said Kevin Davitt, a spokesman for the Port Authority Police Department. "They asked for assistance with the background checks and we're in the process of that now."

Federal lawmakers took notice this week of discrepancies in the background check process after reports that a screener at Kennedy airport was arrested earlier this year for allegedly stealing $6,000 from a passenger.

That incident prompted Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to write to agency chief James M. Loy, asking the agency to disclose how many screeners had not had background checks completed. Schumer also asked how many screeners had been dismissed for failing background checks after starting work.

The agency says it used a four-part process to check for employees' criminal history, using fingerprints or a person's name, a background investigation by a private firm and a more thorough check by the federal Office of Personnel Management.

It's the fourth part of that process, which rechecks information that screeners gave the Georgia-based firm ChoicePoint during the hiring process, including references and job history, that is not yet complete, said Brian Turmail, an agency spokesman.

Turmail acknowledged that the agency is "cleaning up its paperwork and asking some folks to go back and do fingerprint checks," and that some screeners' fingerprints were unreadable because they were smudged when they were taken last fall.

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