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Federal Air Marshals Too Busy Smuggling Coke and Molesting Kids
11-16-2008, 10:22 AM,
Federal Air Marshals Too Busy Smuggling Coke and Molesting Kids
Exposed: Federal Air Marshals Too Busy Smuggling Coke and Molesting Kids to Protect You
By Michael Grabell, ProPublica
Posted on November 14, 2008, Printed on November 16, 2008

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 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. Another stayed on the job despite alarming a flight attendant with his behavior.

This spring, after U.S. embassies, airlines and foreign police agencies complained about air marshal misconduct overseas, the agency director dispatched supervisors on international missions.

From 33 to 3,000

Before 9/11, the Air Marshal Service was a nearly forgotten force of 33 agents with a $4.4 million annual budget. Now housed in the Transportation Security Administration, the agency has a $786 million budget and an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 air marshals, although the official number is classified.

Only a fraction of them have been charged with crimes, and some degree of misconduct occurs at all law enforcement agencies. But for air marshals, the stakes are uniquely high. Their beat is a confined cabin with hundreds of passengers in firing range. There are no calls for backup at 30,000 feet, putting a premium on sound judgment and swift action.

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.

The Air Marshal Service says it has the highest firearms qualification standard among federal law enforcement agencies. Yet police and court records show some marshals have used their weapons imprudently:

In 2003, a New York air marshal pulled his gun in a dispute over a parking space. Another failed to turn over his ammunition on an international trip, as required by diplomatic agreements, and was detained by Israeli airport security in 2004. That same year, a Las Vegas air marshal "discharged" his gun in a hotel room, penetrating a wall and shattering a mirror. In April, a Phoenix air marshal fired his during a fight outside a bar.

Still another left his handgun in the plane's lavatory in 2001, according to court papers. He realized it was missing only after a teenager found it.

Robert Bray, director of the Air Marshal Service, says the misconduct cases don't represent the exemplary work done by the vast majority of air marshals.

"We can reassure the public that these dedicated professionals go out there every day and put their lives on the line to make sure that everyone is safe," Bray says. "I don't want them to be tarred by...a few allegations from a few years ago."

Bray and other officials declined to discuss specific cases, citing privacy laws.

Under government policies, air marshals found guilty of felonies were fired or forced to resign. But 10 air marshals convicted of misdemeanors, mostly drunken driving, were allowed to keep their jobs. And even after notice that background checks were poor, the agency failed to root out air marshals with troubled pasts before they committed felonies.

Current and former air marshals say the misconduct cases show that the agency continues to struggle with policing its own ranks, a problem that first surfaced in its post-9/11 buildup. Since then, the service has had three leaders, been moved four times to different parent agencies and been blasted by Congress for, among other things, failing to cover enough flights and enforcing a dress code that many air marshals felt blew their cover.

Don Strange, the former special agent in charge of the Atlanta office and a finalist to lead the agency in 2006, says turmoil and low morale have led good air marshals to quit and made it harder for managers to maintain the highest standards.

"It starts with the urgency (to hire and train recruits) in a ridiculous amount of time," he says. "Things start to spin out of control."

Recruiting Rush

Unite The Many, defeat the few.

Revolution is for the love of your people, culture, knowledge, wisdom, spirit, and peace. Not Greed!
Soul Rebel Native Son

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