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Feds target airport security firm

PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania (CNN) -- A company responsible for security at several of the nation's airports -- including those where four hijacked planes departed last month on terrorist missions -- still has employees with criminal records working for it, despite a court order to re-check all employee backgrounds.

The U.S. Justice Department announced Thursday it would pursue action against Atlanta-based Argenbright Security Inc., and the agency filed a petition in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia seeking to revoke the company's probation, imposed after sentencing.

Company officials contend the latest allegations occurred before Argenbright implemented new compliance measures, while noting that top FAA representatives offered a favorable review during a July meeting.

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"In light of the recent positive audit of our company by the FAA, we are puzzled by both the timing and substance of (the) actions by the U.S. attorney,'' said Bill Barbour, Argenbright president and chief operating officer.

Barbour noted that the remedies listed in the U.S. attorney's motion to the court are those that the company had already begun to implement or had already recommended to federal officials, such as 100 percent fingerprinting of all employees.

Barbour also indicated the company intends to take issue with a number of inaccuracies contained in the motion.

According to the petition, Argenbright hired dozens of criminals as "pre-departure screeners" at Philadelphia International Airport, failing to verify their backgrounds or criminal history and falsely certifying that those verifications had been done.

The revelation was "startling," the government said. The employees' criminal convictions ranged from theft and forgery to possession of a controlled substance, prostitution and criminal conspiracy.

Argenbright district manager Steven Saffer encouraged and permitted the training test scores of screeners to be falsified, and for phony high school graduation credentials (GEDs) to be created.

The company also allowed more than 1,300 untrained screeners to work at the Philadelphia airport during a period of more than four years.

New violations?

Saffer and two other managers pleaded guilty in May 2000 to serious crimes involving the security violations, and the company was ordered to pay more than $1.5 million in fines and restitution as well as take steps to prevent the violations from recurring.

But the government said the "astonishing and widespread criminal activities" continued after the sentencing, and that Argenbright "has committed many new -- and serious -- violations" of Federal Aviation Administration regulations.

Argenbright is responsible for security at Philadelphia's airport and airports nationwide including Newark, Logan, O'Hare, and Dulles. Two planes used in the terrorist attacks were hijacked from Boston's Logan Airport and one plane each was hijacked from Washington's Dulles International Airport and New Jersey's Newark International Airport.

The action Thursday does not have anything to do with events of September 11, but stems instead from a Jan. 1999 investigation into allegations that Argenbright had falsified background investigations at the airport.

"The action taken today against Argenbright is further evidence of this administration's commitment to the safety and security of the traveling public," said Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta.

Department of Transportation officials will travel to Philadelphia to conduct a series of inspections at the airport. Argenbright has already agreed to give up by the end of the month the company's contract to provide security to Philadelphia's airport, but if it fails the inspection Friday, the contract will end before that time, officials said.



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