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Review of airport security firm shows security breaches continue

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Preliminary findings of a government audit released Tuesday revealed that one of the nation's largest airport security firms is still employing screeners with criminal records that should disqualify them from employment.

The audit was conducted by the Department of Transportation Inspector General and the Federal Aviation Administration of Atlanta-based Argenbright Security's operations at 14 airports.

Argenbright is responsible for security at Philadelphia International Airport and airports nationwide including Newark, New Jersey, Logan in Boston, O'Hare in Chicago, and Dulles outside Washington. Two planes used in the September 11 terrorist attacks were hijacked from Logan and one plane each was hijacked from Dulles and Newark.

The audit revealed that several screeners had criminal backgrounds including a Seattle-Tacoma International Airport screener who had been convicted on charges of being a felon in possession of a handgun.

CNN's Patty Davis reports private airport security firms are fighting to survive amid speculation the government will take over screening (October 16)

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In addition, agents arrested a man after he was able to carry a pocketknife through a security checkpoint manned by Argenbright screeners at Dulles Airport. The man was arraigned Monday in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Virginia for attempting to board an aircraft with a concealed weapon.

Also at Dulles, seven out of 20 screeners were removed from their jobs after they failed a basic skills test.

To be employed as a screener, applicants must complete 12 hours of instruction, pass a written test and be re-tested on an annual basis.

At Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, investigators found seven employees suspected of illegally working in the U.S. The screeners have been detained pending a determination by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

The Aviation Security Association, made up of Securicor -- the company that recently bought Argenbright -- and three other multinational aviation security companies, refused to comment until it could review the full audit. But the association's legal counsel, Kenneth Quinn, said the findings "just serve to underscore the need for direct federal oversight and regulation of airport screening."

He said the industry wants the federal government to be directly responsible for conducting criminal and immigration status checks on airport screeners -- the way it is done in Europe and other parts of the world.

"We want a red light or a green light from the government," on whether to hire an employee, Quinn said. "We shouldn't be relying on private companies and the airlines to authenticate background checks."

The audit was requested by Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta after the Department of Justice filed a motion last week against Argenbright Security for violating terms of its probation stemming from incidents at Philadelphia International Airport.

Three 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.

Argenbright put a compliance program in place at Philadelphia Airport -- but not before another FAA audit showed that the company continued to violate regulations, including the hiring of individuals with prior criminal records. Earlier this month, Argenbright chose not to renew its contract with the Philadelphia Airport for security screening.

Separately, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta ordered Friday a review of background checks done on all U.S. airport security screeners, starting with those employed at the nation's 20 largest airports.


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