At Miami Airport, Buddy Punching Weakens Security

Oct. 27--Playing hooky from work landed nearly a dozen Miami International Airport employees in jail Thursday -- and underscored a troubling security gap at one of the nation's busiest airports, police say.

Investigators say nearly the entire midnight shift in charge of repairing and maintaining the airport's extensive conveyor belt system was paid tens of thousands of dollars for shifts they never worked.

Detectives suspect they pulled off their scheme by giving their badges, which allow them access to the airport's most restricted areas, to co-workers to clock them in.

'SECURITY ISSUE'

"If you can hand them to different people, they can be handed off to the wrong people," said Miami-Dade Detective Javier Prellazo, the lead investigator on the criminal probe. "The bottom line is we were looking at this as a security issue. We want this airport to be secure."

In all, 12 workers were charged with grand theft and organized scheme to defraud as part of what investigators dubbed Operation Phantom Swipe. Eleven were arrested Thursday; a 12th, Hubert Dixon, of Homestead, turned himself in Thursday night. None of those arrested has admitted to handing off their badges to others, investigators said. "The possession of these badges are a privilege and not protection against defrauding the county," said Lauren Stover, the Miami-Dade Aviation Department's assistant director.

Stover said the department discovered discrepancies during a routine audit in October 2005. A tipster later reaffirmed the suspicions, she said.

Asked what precautions the aviation department was taking to avoid security-badge abuse, Stover stressed that the department's internal checks and balances caught the scam.

"Our procedures are working," she said.

As the scope of the case grew in June, the aviation department contacted the county police's airport district and the criminal probe began.

Detectives Prellazo and Kevin C. Kozak combed through reams of security and payroll records. They found glaring inconsistencies -- workers often checked in but failed to complete their shifts. Sometimes, they never showed up at all, instead staying at home while someone checked in for them.

FOLLOWED EMPLOYEE

The most egregious example was that of Camilo Linares, an airport employee since 1985, who skipped whole or partial shifts on 60 days and was paid more than $10,000.

Detectives trailed one employee, Libby King, shopping at a Publix on South Beach, then visiting at 2 a.m. an apartment on Pennsylvania Avenue. She later claimed she was visiting her mother.

In reporting for work, airport employees are required to swipe their badges twice: through a magnetic card reader at any one of many security entrances, then through a payroll time clock.

Investigators say the fraud escalated over years because of the poor management of supervisor Kenneth Reposky, who allegedly altered payroll records to show his workers were actually on the job. He was among those charged on Thursday.

Stover, the aviation department assistant director, said "administrative action" will be taken against some of the remaining employees who have not been arrested. A private contractor will be brought in to continue maintenance and repair of the conveyor belts that deliver luggage to and from planes.

Operation Phantom Swipe is only the latest criminal probe to lead to arrests at the long-troubled airport:

--Two years ago, authorities arrested 11 people for conspiring to siphon millions of gallons of jet fuel to be resold on the black market.

OTHER CASES

--In 2003, the airport's powerful former construction chief was sentenced to four years in prison for his role in a contracts-for-bribes scheme and his failure to declare hundreds of thousands of dollars in income to the IRS.

--In 2001, just days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, federal authorities filed criminal charges against 12 MIA employees for allegedly using phony documents to obtain identification badges that gave them access to restricted areas.

Brian Andrews of Miami Herald news partner WFOR-CBS4 contributed to this report.

[Miami Herald, The (KRT) -- 10/30/06]

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