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Saturday, November 15, 2008

U.S. Air Marshals - Concerns over their hiring practices

...No office compiles uniform statistics on arrests of federal law officers, making it difficult to compare agencies...


November 13, 2008 7:00 am EST
[Full article here]
[2 Excerpted cases from long list of Marshals]
The Las Vegas air marshal was convicted of domestic battery in 2007 after his girlfriend accused him of pressing his thumbs into the corners of her eyes during a fight, according to police records. Because of the conviction, he could no longer possess a firearm and lost his job. Aldaz said the account in police reports isn't true and that he acted in self-defense only after he was attacked. He was placed on paid leave for a year and a half while the case was pending, mostly doing administrative work in the air marshals field office. [FILE - Police Report (PDF)]
The Chicago air marshal was sentenced to 25 years in prison for trying to hire a hit man to kill his ex-wife and her boyfriend. According to court transcripts, Phelps said he wanted to see his wife's picture on a milk carton and asked a fellow air marshal who had worked Chicago's roughest housing projects if he knew anyone who could make her disappear. The colleague said he knew of a guy named "The Crucifixer" and then reported Phelps to his supervisor who alerted the FBI. In an interview from prison, Phelps insisted that he was only venting with the morbid humor frequently used by cops and had no money or plans to go through with a hit. But Phelps had numerous conversations with two FBI agents posing as hit men, going so far as discussing sites to dump the bodies. Before becoming an air marshal, Phelps had worked for five small police departments in Alabama, though never for more than a year. He was fired from one police job because he often lost his temper and acted before thinking things through, prosecutors said. In a second police job, Phelps was given the option to resign or be fired for misconduct while on duty.
[FILE - Prosecutor's Opening Statement (PDF)] &
[FILE - Defense Attorney's Opening Statement (PDF)]

USA Today
By Michael Grabell, ProPublica
Nov 12, 2008
[Excerpts from a very long article] Shawn Nguyen bragged that he could sneak anything past airport security using his top-secret clearance as a federal air marshal. And for months, he smuggled cocaine and drug money onto flights across the country, boasting to an FBI informant that he was "the man with the golden badge." Michael McGowan used his position as an air marshal to lure a young boy to his hotel room, where he showed him child porn, took pictures of him naked and sexually abused him. And when Brian "Cooter" Phelps wanted his ex-wife to disappear, he called a fellow air marshal and tried to hire a hit man nicknamed "the Crucifixer." Since 9/11, more than three dozen federal air marshals have been charged with crimes, and hundreds more have been accused of misconduct, an investigation by ProPublica, a non-profit journalism organization, has found. Cases range from drunken driving and domestic violence to aiding a human-trafficking ring and trying to smuggle explosives from Afghanistan. The Federal Air Marshal Service presents the image of an elite undercover force charged with making split-second decisions that could mean the difference between stopping a terrorist and shooting an innocent passenger. But an examination of police reports, court records, government reports, memos and e-mails shows that 18 air marshals have been charged with felonies, including at least three who were hired despite prior criminal records or being fired from law enforcement jobs. A fourth air marshal was hired while under FBI investigation... Since 9/11, air marshals have taken bribes, committed bank fraud, hired an escort while on layover and doctored hotel receipts to pad expenses, records show. They've been found sleeping on planes and lost the travel documents of U.S. diplomats while on a whiskey-tasting trip in Scotland.... Under heavy congressional pressure, the government rushed to hire thousands of air marshals after 9/11... Before becoming an air marshal, Brian Phelps had worked at five small police departments in Alabama, but none for more than a year. He was fired from the job he held longest for losing his temper and acting "irrationally" before thinking things through, prosecutors said. He quit another job in lieu of being fired for misconduct while on duty, says Mayor Paula Phillips of Douglas, Ala. In 2005, Phelps, known as "Cooter" among fellow air marshals, told a colleague that he wanted to see his wife's picture on a milk carton, court transcripts say. He asked the air marshal, who'd worked in Chicago's housing projects, whether he knew of anyone who could help. The colleague said he did: The Crucifixer. The colleague told the Air Marshal Service, and after numerous contacts with FBI agents posing as hit men, Phelps was arrested and sentenced to 25 years in prison... Because air marshals receive top-secret security clearances, background checks are supposed to include criminal history searches going back 10 years, credit reports and interviews with relatives, neighbors and employers. Checks are conducted by the federal Office of Personnel Management, a separate agency, which forwards results to the Air Marshal Service... But in Phelps' case, three officials — Justice Ashley, former assistant police chief in Guntersville, Ala.; Chad Long, the current Douglas police chief, and Phillips — say they couldn't recall the air marshals contacting anyone to make a background check. It's unclear whether Pirani's FBI scrutiny and Nguyen's bankruptcy were missed or disregarded... No office compiles uniform statistics on arrests of federal law officers, making it difficult to compare agencies... Over the years, the service has loosened some hiring practices:
  • In 2002, the agency decided that recruits no longer had to pass a rigorous firearms test requiring them to prove speed and accuracy in close quarters similar to an airplane...
  • In late 2005, the agency began hiring TSA screeners, new college grads and others with no law enforcement experience...
  • Two years ago, officials suspended a requirement that air marshals pass a written psychological test and an interview with a psychologist or psychiatrist...
[Full article here]

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