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Air marshals face smuggling charges

Pair arrested after allegedly agreeing to transport cocaine

From Kelli Arena and Kevin Bohn
CNN

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Federal air marshals in training.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Two federal air marshals are facing drug charges after allegedly agreeing to smuggle cocaine from a man who turned out to be a government witness, the U.S. attorney's office in Houston, Texas, announced Monday.

Shawn Ray Nguyen, 38, and Burlie Sholar, 32, were arrested Thursday after allegedly receiving 15 kilograms of cocaine and $15,000 cash delivered to Nguyen's home and agreeing to take the drugs on a plane, prosecutors said in court papers.

The U.S. attorney's office accused the two men of agreeing to use their official positions as federal air marshals to bypass airport security and smuggle the cocaine on board a flight from Houston to Las Vegas, Nevada, in exchange for the money. (Watch how prosecutors say the men avoided detection -- 1:35)

The two men made an initial appearance in federal court Monday afternoon and will have a detention hearing before Thursday morning, where bail will be discussed.

"The alleged conduct of these two men is serious and disturbing," the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security, Richard Skinner, said in a press release.

"We remain committed to working with our internal and external partners to aggressively investigate all allegations of corruption to protect the integrity of the Department of Homeland Security personnel, programs and operations."

Kent Schaffer, a lawyer for Nguyen, said his client will be pleading not guilty at Thursday's hearing.

"The charges are serious, but we believe he should be released on bond," Schaffer said. He added that Nguyen has "a history of service to this country."

Sholar had not retained a lawyer Monday, according to prosecutors. He is supposed to appear in court briefly on Wednesday to identify his attorney.

Authorities said the inspector general's office began an investigation into alleged drug trafficking by Nguyen in late 2005 after receiving information from a witness that he had been involved in selling drugs, according to a criminal complaint.

In addition to the cocaine delivered last week, a December 21 incident is also detailed by prosecutors in the criminal complaint. In that incident, they allege, Nguyen bypassed airport security with a package containing $25,000 in narcotics proceeds and fraudulent government documents.

Nguyen and Sholar are charged with conspiring to use their positions to smuggle the cocaine in exchange for approximately $4,500 per kilogram.

Upon conviction, the charge of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute 5 kilograms or more of cocaine carries a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 10 years and a maximum of life.

Federal Air Marshals Service spokesman Dave Adams said Nguyen and Sholar had been with the service since 2002 and a decision on their employment status is pending.

The number of marshals is classified, but in 2003, then-Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge told CNN there were several thousand agents.

On September 11, 2001, there were 33 marshals, and they flew only on international flights. After the attacks on Washington and New York, the Federal Aviation Administration buttressed the program with hundreds of officers borrowed from other federal agencies and started a massive hiring effort.

The Air Marshal Service has said that after President Bush promised to expand the program, it received 200,000 applications. A 2004 report by the Department of Homeland Security found problems in the background screening given applicants. The report also cited disciplinary problems among agents.

There were also at least nine investigations into whether agents, who are often privy to classified information, had leaked secrets to the media or public.

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