Lawyer questions arrests at BWI

Critics say criminal pasts should have been caught earlier, working poor hurt

April 25, 2002|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

One is a former drug addict turned coffee brewer who moved into a shelter for battered women to help turn her life around. Another, a state employee, has a criminal record that includes drug charges. A third, a Canadian citizen, was working without the proper permit.

They all worked at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, and they were among the 10 workers there indicted this week on federal charges. Seven are accused of making false statements that concealed their criminal history to obtain airport-issued security badges. The remaining three were indicted on immigration violations.

In announcing the indictments of the BWI workers and of 94 others from Washington Dulles International and Ronald Reagan Washington National, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft declared the sweep proof to the public that airport security is taken seriously. But others are asking why it took so long for the workers' criminal pasts to be discovered.

And some are questioning whether the arrested workers, whom officials said had no ties to terrorist organizations, posed a threat to airport passengers or security.

"To increase security, these are not the people you're looking for. These are just people trying to make a living," said Bill Oliver, a vice president at The Boyd Group, an aviation consulting research firm based in Colorado. "There is a real threat. We have a group of people on the other side of the world that want to kill us. This is just a distraction."

Jim Wyda, the federal public defender whose office is representing the seven indicted on false statement charges, said his clients are "basically the working poor."

"We're talking about Starbucks and Burger King employees who happen to be taking jobs at the airport," he said.

Wyda added that some of his clients were on probation and were reporting their progress at work to probation officers. One client, Victoria Delores Thomas, lives at a shelter for battered women, which helped her find a job at the airport's Starbucks.

Thomas' criminal record includes convictions for theft and charges of drug possession, battery, disorderly conduct, destruction of property, trespassing and concealing a deadly weapon. She lived at motels or had no fixed address for years, according to court records.

Wyda said Thomas used her real Social Security number on her application for a badge, as did several of his other clients.

"If anyone looked," he said, "they could have figured it out."

The Maryland Anti-Terrorism Task Force, which included officials from the FBI, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Transportation Department's inspector general, made the arrests after an investigation that lasted about four months. In December 2000, the Federal Aviation Administration required background checks for all new employees at BWI. In January, the agency required checks on all 12,000 employees when they renew their security badges.

Oliver, the aviation consultant from Colorado, argues that those checks are not rigorous enough and that airport employers should have addressed these criminal histories before.

Michael Wascom, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, which represents 22 airlines, praised the government for the investigation that led to the indictments. But he questioned why the employees were working at the airports in the first place.

"Clearly, this was information that was uncovered by the Department of Justice that should have rendered them unemployable for that position," he said.

While most of those indicted at BWI worked in the food service industry, two were employees of the Maryland Aviation Administration, the state agency that runs the airport.

One, Stacey Washington, was an administrative assistant working in the finance department. The other, Carrold Spencer, was a field maintenance worker who earned $31,000 a year, according to federal court records. Spencer's criminal history includes drug charges from 1992.

BWI spokesman John White said he learned yesterday that the two were among the airport's 552 state workers. He wasn't sure how long they had been employed at the airport.

At a detention hearing for Thomas yesterday, Wyda pleaded with government attorneys and U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul W. Grimm to keep his client out of jail. Thomas, who according to her lawyer has been clean for nearly two years, has changed so much that Wyda's legal partner, who had represented her in the past, didn't recognize her for about 20 minutes when he drove her home after her arrest Tuesday.

All parties agreed she could return to the shelter until they find a home for her where she could be monitored electronically -- something the shelter wasn't sure it could accommodate.

Sun staff researcher Sarah Gehring contributed to this article.

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