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TSA's handling of high-level security badge questioned

By Jeanne Meserve, CNN Homeland Security Correspondent
  • A TSA employee committed armed robbery as a juvenile
  • Airport officials denied him higher-level security clearance after learning of the crime
  • Since the crime was committed at age 17, TSA says it does not disqualify his clearance
  • Airport officials accuse TSA of employing a "double standard"

Washington (CNN) -- Does giving a second chance create a double standard?

Officials at the Richmond International Airport in Virginia think so.

They say the Transportation Security Administration has compromised airport security by giving a high-level security badge to a felon.

The TSA says it is just following the law.

The screener, whose name has not been made public, committed armed robbery at the age of 17 and entered a guilty plea a year later, according to Richmond airport officials. Because he was a juvenile at the time of the crime, the felony did not disqualify him from later being hired and credentialed by the TSA.

It wasn't until last year, when the screener applied to the airport for an upgraded security badge, that airport authorities learned of his criminal history and turned him down. The officials say their TSA-approved security plan requires that anyone convicted of armed robbery within the past 10 years be denied a badge.

But airport officials say after being "threatened with unspecified consequences" by the TSA, they gave the screener the credential.

The TSA maintains it is doing what the law requires.

In a letter to airport officials, a TSA lawyer wrote that "juvenile offender adjudications are not felony convictions" and do not disqualify an individual from employment. She says the purpose is to allow juveniles "to avoid the stigma of a prior criminal conviction and encourage treatment and rehabilitation."

Jon Mathiasen, the president and chief executive officer of Richmond International Airport, says he believes in second chances but was "blown away" by the decision to allow someone with such a criminal history into the most secure areas of his airport, including the airfield, airline ramps and the baggage area.

"I am taken aback," he said, "I am not sure that this is the appropriate place for him to work."

Mathiasen says airport security should be consistent. "We do not hire people who have this type of record. Neither do airlines or air cargo companies. So to a certain extent, there is a double standard," he said.

"The TSA has to maintain the same high level of employment practice that they are asking everyone else to."

TSA spokeswoman Sterling Payne responded, "There is no double standard."

But Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, wrote TSA Acting Administrator Gail Rossides saying her agency has undermined the airport's efforts to ensure traveler safety.

Cantor wrote, "These actions defy common sense. This is a matter of national security and our citizens deserve better."