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Security company comes under increased criticism

From Mike Fish

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Mess up and you're slapped with a fine. That's the hammer the Federal Aviation Administration uses in policing aviation security breaches.

But critics of the practice say it isn't enough of a deterrent, pointing to the nation's largest airport security company as an example.

More than a year after pleading guilty to federal fraud charges and being put on three years' probation, Atlanta, Georgia-based Argenbright Security Inc. was accused on October 11 by the U.S. attorney's office in Philadelphia of failing to complete background checks for workers at 13 large U.S. airports.

Renewed attention focused on Argenbright after at least seven employees were suspended, including a supervisor, following a security breach Saturday night in Chicago. A security screener removed two knifes from the pocket of Subash Gurung, 27, passenger at O'Hare International Airport, but a subsequent security check before boarding a flight for Omaha, Nebraska, found seven more knives, a can of Mace and a stun gun in Gurung's carry-on baggage, Chicago police said.

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Argenbright Security appointed a new chief executive and implemented new "zero tolerance" security measures. The company did not say the shakeup was related to the incident at O'Hare but the new CEO -- Gulf War veteran David Beaton -- moved immediately to restructure the management team and put into place "a range of substantial and immediate measures to ensure Argenbright meets and exceeds the public's and administration's heightened security expectations."

Along with the situation in Chicago, Beaton found himself dealing Friday with suspension of the company's license at Boston's Logan Airport, where Argenbright handled checkpoint security for several airlines. The firm can appeal the decision at a November 30 hearing, while continuing to staff security checkpoints until then.

Col. John DiFava, acting security chief for the Massachusetts Port Authority, told CNN that Atlanta-based Argenbright can no longer be trusted. Tuesday, an Argenbright employee left an exit door unattended briefly, and hundreds of passengers had to be re-screened at a Delta concourse. In September, Argenbright employees left a metal detector unattended, allowing at least one passenger to walk to a US Airways gate without screening.

The latest charges, coupled with previous penalties against the company, have some critics of U.S. airport security questioning the effectiveness of the FAA's system of assessing fines for security violations.

"You pay the fine and you're still in business," said Gerald Dillingham, associate director of the General Accounting Office. "I think Argenbright is probably the poster child for that."

Company officials say the allegations from fall 2001 reflect a period before Argenbright implemented new compliance measures, while noting that top FAA representatives offered a favorable review of company practices during a July meeting.

"In light of the recent positive audit of our company by the FAA, we are puzzled by both the timing and substance of (the) actions by the U.S. attorney," Bill Barbour, Argenbright president and chief operating officer, said in the fall of 2001.

According to a U.S. government audit released in mid-October 2001, investigators found several screeners with criminal backgrounds, including a Seattle-Tacoma International Airport screener who had been convicted on charges of being a felon in possession of a handgun. At Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, investigators found seven Argenbright employees suspected of illegally working in the United States, according to the audit.

The findings resulted in action early in 2002. On February 6, the U.S. Department of Transportation notified Argenbright that it would no longer do business with the company.

The decision will not affect Argenbright's work at U.S. airports, where the embattled security company now contracts with airlines and not the government. That will change beginning February 17, when the federal government begins a 180-day process of taking control of airport security from private screeners.

The DOT said it is asking competing security firms for bids to assume Argenbright's workload this winter and continue in that capacity until federal screeners take over.

The 15 U.S. airports where Argenbright is the sole screening company will be the first at which federal employees take over all screening operations, the department said. Those airports include Washington Dulles, Denver, Colorado, and Orlando Florida.



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