You likely don't know about the federal investigation of WorldWide Security Associates, which screens passengers at Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport and 11 other airports across the country. The Sun-Sentinel and Miami Herald published short, vague stories last month about a December 19 FBI raid of the WorldWide office in the Jet Center near the airport. And the FBI remains mum.
But the former WorldWide employee who triggered the investigation recently contacted me and broke her public silence. Her revelations should make us all thankful that the federal government is taking over the job of airport screening. It's just too bad the new law doesn't take effect until the end of the year (instead of, say, yesterday) and that airports will be allowed to return to private companies after three years of federal supervision.
The FBI informant -- I'll call her Betty -- described WorldWide as a terribly mismanaged firm that ordered her to falsify background checks for screeners. She says agents, whom she's worked with closely since she ratted out the company on December 14, have told her that numerous laws were broken and that the case will go before a grand jury in coming weeks. The Los Angeles-based company's attorney, Martin Raskin of Miami, confirms that numerous training files seized by the feds had "gaps and holes" in them and says that nine WorldWide screeners have been fired as a result of the investigation. Turns out that those employees had criminal backgrounds or lied about their histories.
And the entire mess may never have happened if not for Betty's penchant for wearing miniskirts. Betty did with legs what Erin Brockovich did with cleavage: help to expose some wrongdoing. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
The saga began this past October 21, just 40 days after the World Trade Center and Pentagon were hit by suicide bombers. Betty was in her Fort Lauderdale home scanning the Sunday Sun-Sentinel's "help wanted" section. She was unemployed and wasn't picky about potential work. In previous years, she'd been a housecleaner and a receptionist in a printing office, and when she saw a WorldWide ad for airport screeners, she decided to give it a try. The next morning, she drove to the Embassy Suites hotel near the airport, where the company had a temporary office.
Betty, a 40-year-old grandmother, was wearing a short skirt when she rode the elevator to the tenth floor and strode into the WorldWide conference room. The place was bustling with people and application papers. At the time, the company was just starting its operation in Fort Lauderdale, where it currently provides security screening for Delta Air Lines at Terminal 2 and for a number of other air carriers at Terminal 4. So it needed to hire a score of $8-per-hour screeners in a hurry.
Betty filled out an application, and, when it came time for an interview, she says a WorldWide boss commented that she had nice gams. By noon, she was working -- only not as a screener but as a receptionist. She answered phones, checked backgrounds, helped to hire people, and did whatever else needed to be done. Betty was happy: The job paid 50 cents an hour more than a screener's pay. "They said they liked my looks," she recalls.
Betty says she was trained by regional manager Mike Catani and WorldWide CEO Michael Ferrua, who came from Los Angeles to personally help in the startup. One of Betty's chief duties was to verify all the information on applications (by calling schools, references, and former employers) and to make sure criminal-background checks were done. She says that in her seven weeks at the firm, she assisted in the hiring of 125 to 150 people.
But WorldWide, she says, was flying by the seat of its pants. Rather than immediately conduct background checks, Betty says she was told by office manager Melissa Herberz to put the applications in a box and "get to them when [she] got a chance."
In the hiring frenzy, most of the checks were never completed, Betty says. But she claims that fact didn't stop Herberz from ordering her to sign forms stating they had been done. Betty alleges that her signature went on more than 100 falsified forms. "The people at WorldWide were in such a hurry to hire people, they didn't care who worked there," she says. "And almost all of [those hired] were working on the [airport] floor without having their applications verified."
As for criminal records, it was Betty's job to send applicants' information to L.A., where an employee would run a check on a federal database. She was supposed to receive the records by overnight mail the next morning. "The whole time I was there, I may have gotten 40 back out of 150 people," Betty says. "But they were out there on the floor working anyway. They could have all been felons for what anybody knew."
Some apparently were. No WorldWide officials -- including Ferrua, Catani, or Herberz -- would speak with me. Instead, all questions were deferred to attorney Raskin. While admitting that the company had some problems when it came to checking backgrounds and maintaining training files, the lawyer said he knew of no one who was ordered to falsify records. "If that's true, then it's serious," he says. "That would be fraud."
Raskin, however, says he thinks that Betty (whom he suspected of being the FBI informant before I called) has a vendetta against the company, in part because Herberz demanded that Betty stop wearing skirts. "There were arguments over inappropriate attire," he says.
Raskin also intimates that Betty went to the FBI because she was fired. Indeed, Catani terminated her just before she went to the authorities. And it had nothing to do with her legs. Seven weeks after she began working at WorldWide, Betty's own criminal background finally came back. She had a misdemeanor domestic assault, due to an argument with her ex-husband that dated back a decade. Though a judge dismissed the charge, Catani fired her anyway.
Betty insists she didn't go to the FBI out of spite; it was simply a matter of self-preservation. With heightened federal scrutiny of the airport screening companies, she didn't want to be the scapegoat. "I knew my signature was on those forms and they could blame me for everything," she says.
Whatever her motivation, Betty exposed a colossal mess at WorldWide when she went to the feds. Just five days after she spoke with the feds, agents raided the WorldWide office and hauled off its records. Betty says FBI agents told her the seized files proved that at least 67 screeners either had never been checked or didn't receive proper training. Betty also says that numerous former employees of WorldWide (including herself) still have company badges that give them access to secure locations at the airport. WorldWide doesn't keep track, she adds.
She suspects that some of the company's illicit secrets may have been shredded before the raid. "I told the FBI to make sure and check the shredder," she comments.
Raskin asserts that any shredding at the office was strictly legal but acknowledges that many of the training files were incomplete. He wouldn't say why the nine fired employees didn't pass their background checks. The lawyer admits that WorldWide put employees to work in the airport before the checks were complete. But, he says, all were supervised closely. "Whenever there was an open item, the person was not put out there on their own," Raskin says. "There were some people out there on on-the-job training, and they were out there under supervision until their backgrounds were completed."
That argument could be crucial to WorldWide's defense. According to federal law, screeners who are not fully checked out can work in an airport only under supervision and "may not exercise any independent judgments" while they are working. But Betty insists that numerous screeners worked independently before their background checks were done. "On-the-job training lasted 40 hours," she says. "All those employees became permanent screeners after the 40 hours were up. And most of the supervisors weren't properly trained either."
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Federal officials refused to comment on the investigation. Dirk Herberz, the airport's security manager, says he has no regulatory oversight of the screening company -- which is a good thing, since he happens to be married to WorldWide's office manager, Melissa Herberz. "There are a lot of problems at all the screening companies," says the husband. "I'm glad that the federal government is taking them over."
WorldWide, though, has been making the most of the time before the takeover. The company has been growing, largely due to scandals involving the nation's largest airport screening company, Argenbright Security. Argenbright was fined $1.6 million last year after pleading guilty to charges that it failed to conduct proper background checks of employees at Logan International Airport in Boston. This past November, Massachusetts officials pulled Argenbright's license to operate and hired WorldWide, along with two other companies. Around the same time, WorldWide also took over a $6 million contract from Argenbright at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix.
But the growth hasn't come without some bad publicity. The Arizona Republic followed the announcement of WorldWide's hiring at Sky Harbor with a report that the company's record of security lapses at the airport was nearly three times worse than Argenbright's during the past few years. In Tampa, WorldWide made international news last month when screeners overlooked a loaded gun in a briefcase. Oops.
If the office in Fort Lauderdale provides any indication, the scandals have just begun. Let's hope the firm is soon put out of the airport security business for good; there's no room in the post-September 11 world for a company like WorldWide.