Daily Breeze

June 04, 2003

Federal background checks half finished

By TOBY ECKERT
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON — Full criminal background checks have yet to be completed on about half of the federal security screeners at the nation’s airports, officials said Tuesday.

About 159 screeners who were conditionally hired at Los Angeles International Airport were later fired after problems surfaced in their backgrounds, James Loy, the head of the Transportation Security Administration told a House panel.

Nationwide, 1,208 screeners have been fired for “suitability issues,” including lying about arrests or convictions, out of a total work force of around 55,000, Loy said. Nearly 30,000 are still in the final stages of background investigations.

No one suspected of having committed one of 28 disqualifying criminal offenses — including murder, rape and robbery — is still on the job, Loy assured the panel. One top lawmaker said it was clear that the TSA’s multistep process for checking the backgrounds of the passenger and baggage screeners was “defective” despite the nearly $1 billion spent on the process.

“These screeners often have access to some of the most sensitive areas of an airport and are one of the last lines of defense against a potential act of terrorism,” said Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., chairman of the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee. “One mistake or one unsavory character and you have one huge, potentially fatal circumstance on your hands.”

Loy promised the lawmakers that all background checks would be completed Oct. 1.

While defending the process as a “thorough effort” to vet the work force, Loy acknowledged “administrative challenges and setbacks” in the 10-month rush to get all of the screeners hired by the Nov. 19, 2002, deadline set by Congress.

A significant delay in the background checks occurred when the TSA switched human resources contractors earlier this year and hundreds of files had to be transferred, Loy said.

“We literally lost what I’d say is at least a couple of months of processing opportunity in the course of terminating the contract with NCS Pearson and initiating the one with Accenture,” Loy said. “We have had a very difficult time in terms of accepting what was the contents of those boxes and turning them back into a flow of solid work that was part and parcel of our continued background investigation effort.”

Federal officials are auditing the NCS Pearson contract, but Loy refused to publicly discuss details.

The TSA said it could not release data about how many screeners have yet to be fully vetted at specific airports.

Concerns about the background checks first surfaced in March, when the Daily Breeze reported that several screeners at LAX were fired after they were found to have criminal records. LAX officials later decided to do additional background checks on all 2,700 of the airport’s screeners.

Rogers said similar problems occurred at airports in New York, Miami, Tampa and Minneapolis-St. Paul.

The TSA recently reviewed part of the work force at LAX; LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy airports in New York; Newark International Airport in New Jersey and O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. Only one screener — who worked at Kennedy — was found to have a problem and was fired, Loy said.

Those reviewed had criminal records but had not committed serious offenses that would disqualify them from the job, a TSA spokesman said.

The TSA conditionally hired thousands of passenger and baggage screeners last year after they passed three phases of a four-part background check. Four private contractors were involved in the process.

The final, most exhaustive check is done by the federal Office of Personnel Management and takes 45 to 70 days.

The OPM is in the midst of assessing 12,297 screeners and awaiting complete files on 17,506 others, said Stephen Benowitz, the office’s associate director for human resources.

Loy said 1,015 screeners had yet to undergo an initial FBI criminal history check because their fingerprints were not readable. Another 573 are still undergoing an investigation that involves a second criminal background check and a credit check by a private company.

The fingerprinting process should be finished by June 15 and the second set of background checks is expected to be done by mid-July, Loy said.

Chairman Rogers warned he would hold Loy and the other officials to the time line they laid out for finishing the background checks.

“It’s important that we solve this problem immediately,” Rogers said. “We are going to be wedded to these deadlines.”