Crime issue raises security concerns at Baltimore's port

February 15, 2011|By Marta H. Mossburg

When career criminals have access to U.S. ports but law-abiding airline passengers must let strangers grope them to board a plane, something smells.

Even worse, no one seems to care at a time Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano described in congressional testimony last week as the most dangerous since Sept. 11. Van Smith at the City Paper ran court records of the 918 members of the International Longshoremen's Association Local 333 and found that about one-quarter of union members have been convicted of a crime in Maryland. He published his findings in a November 2010 article, to a deafening silence from local, state and federal officials.

Mr. Smith found that 21 members were convicted of serious crimes, including armed robbery, possession with the intent to distribute drugs, drug dealing, firearms, sex offense, theft and assault at the time he published his article in 2010. In 2009, the number was 19. All but one of the members convicted of serious crimes in 2010 had previous convictions, and Mr. Smith found one who had 10 convictions dating back 15 years for drug dealing, firearms, robbery and car theft.

Many of those crimes should have prevented union members from getting the federal imprimatur known as a TWIC (Transportation Worker Identification Credential).The system cost taxpayers about $100 million to develop.

The Transportation Security Administration did not answer questions about whether any of the men convicted of the crimes Mr. Smith discovered had received waivers to work; whether they were still working at the port; or whether the agency performs periodic background checks on cardholders.

TSA spokesman Kawika Riley said, "The TWIC program has made the nation's ports safer by ensuring that maritime workers who have known or suspected ties to terrorism do not have unescorted access to secure areas of ports or vessels."

Maybe so, but there are many reasons the TSA should care about more than individuals' links to Osama bin Laden when it comes to the safety of the port.

Three longshoremen in Baltimore were recently convicted of lying about being on the job when they were actually on vacation in Costa Rica, Las Vegas and Paris. During their trial it came out that "covering" is a common practice and means that those not qualified to have access to the port are working there on a regular basis. Who knows if one of those substitutes is short on cash and willing to compromise port security to fix the hole in his bank account?

In December, Milton Tillman Jr., a bail bondsman, businessman and member of the ILA Local 333, pleaded guilty to charges of filing a false tax return, wire fraud in connection with his bail bond business and "covering." Through his businesses, he has donated thousands to state and local politicians.

Problems in Baltimore are not isolated. Federal authorities arrested eight longshoremen in New York and New Jersey in October for using their port access to help unload millions of dollars worth of cocaine from Panama. As part of the roundup of 127 people with suspected mob ties in January, FBI officials arrested ILA officials in New York and New Jersey for allegedly extorting between $500 and $5,000 from each union member at Christmastime to give to the mafia.

Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, said at the time of the October arrests noted above, "In today's world, we simply can't afford to have a port that is porous, and we can't afford to have even a single corrupt longshoreman." He's right, and if drugs can get through, why not a dirty bomb?

Richard Scher, communications director for the Maryland Port Administration, said, "There is always room for improvement." But he stressed that the Baltimore port has earned near-perfect scores from the Coast Guard for its security in recent years and requires workers at public terminals to obtain a second identification card to add another level of safety to port operations.

No one answered phone calls at the ILA Local 333 nor was present at their headquarters on Hull Street when I visited.

Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Baltimore County Democrat who sits on the House Select Committee on Intelligence, said, "If there is something illegal going on at the port, then we need to investigate it." But he had not seen any "facts and data" showing a lapse in security.

The "covering" issue alone shows major lapses in security at the port and raises questions about whether the $100 million spent on the TWIC program has made the U.S. any safer. When key people standing between safety and a second Sept. 11 belong in prison, Americans should be scared — even if, as Secretary Napolitano said last week, "we are making great progress in addressing today's evolving terrorist threats."

Marta H. Mossburg is a senior fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute and a fellow at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Her column appears every other Wednesday in The Baltimore Sun. Her e-mail is martamossburg@gmail.com.

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