By Steve Mosco
A mini-booze bottle scam netted big bucks and free drinks for airport employees accused in a $750,000 criminal caper that raised serious questions about security at John F. Kennedy international Airport, according to the Queens district attorney.
Authorities busted 18 workers — 13 of them from Queens at JFK last week after a five-month investigation found they allegedly smuggled thousands of liquor bottles off airplanes and into their personal vehicles.
Queens DA Richard Brown and Port Authority of NY & NJ Inspector General Robert E. Van Etten announced Sept. 12 that a total of 18 airport employees were arrested and charged in connection with the widespread theft during an investigation dubbed “Operation Last Call.”
“The defendants are alleged to have pilfered over the past five months more than three-quarters of a million dollars worth of mini bottles of liquor and duty-free merchandise from Kennedy Airport for subsequent sale in the local underground economy,” said Brown. “Employee pilferage is a significant problem for many companies, not just at the airports but throughout the entire metropolitan area. In the last analysis, however, it is the consuming public that bears the burden of thefts such as those that are alleged to have occurred in this case.”
A total of 15 current and former truck drivers employed by Sky Chef, the food and beverage subsidiary for American Airlines, and three security guards employed by FJC Security Services Inc. and SCIS Security Corp. allegedly pilfered more than 100,000 mini bottles, as well as duty-free items such as larger liquor bottles, perfume and cartons of cigarettes — with an overall estimated retail value of more than $750,000, said the district attorney.
According to the investigation, Sky Chef drivers removed the unsold mini liquor bottles from planes and either transported them to their personal vehicles in the employee parking lot or sold the stolen booze to co-workers on the loading docks. Investigators also alleged that security guards at the airport were given bottles in return for ignoring the heist.
Brown said he was extremely disturbed that airport security guards could be influenced in such a way in a post-9/11 world.
“Perhaps more troubling is that airport security personnel entrusted with guarding against theft and maintaining security at the airport were allegedly involved in the scheme,” said Brown. “If a terrorist wanted to breach airport security, the alleged actions of these defendants gave then a back-door opportunity to do so.”
The security service employing the guards allegedly involved in the scam said the company learned of serious infractions by an employee they inherited from the airport’s previous security contractor after catching him in the act.
“Rather than terminate this individual and launch our own investigation, FJC worked cooperatively with law enforcement to fully investigate this matter,” said a spokesman with FJC Security Services. “The employees arrested have been terminated.”
The airport workers are variously charged with bribe receiving, receiving a reward for official misconduct, grand larceny and criminal possession of stolen property.
Port Authority Inspector Van Etten said the employees betrayed the trust of the city and the thousands of passengers that pass through the airport every day.
“The defendants arrested in Operation Last Call violated and sold out their position of trust and access to the secure areas of the airport, including access to commercial aviation, all for personal greed,” he said. “More egregious, is the conduct of three security guards employed to secure, protect and report crime at JFK International Airport but who also were involved in selling out their positions of trust to line their pockets.”
Reach reporter Steve Mosco by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-260-4546.