Friday, November 30, 2001

An Argenbright employee screens bags at Logan International Airport in Boston.

Troubled security firm
seeks Hawaii foothold

Argenbright Security Inc., the
industry leader in airport screening,
was ousted from Boston

By Tim Ruel

A company that has drawn controversy across the nation for security lapses at major airports has received a state license to provide guard services in Hawaii, and the firm plans to seek work at local airports.

The firm, Argenbright Security Inc., does not have contracts with Hawaii's airports, but getting the license is a first step toward doing so. Argenbright is America's largest provider of airport security, with 40 percent of the market, but the firm has drawn fire recently, in part because it has hired people with criminal records as security screeners.

Argenbright's Hawaii guard agency license, granted by the state Board of Private Detectives and Guards, was activated Wednesday. At the board's October meeting, Argenbright's local principal guard, Jonathan T.K. Brown, confirmed that Argenbright wants to provide airport security services in Hawaii, said Michael Machado, executive officer of the board. Machado declined further comment.

Brown, who previously ran his own local guard business, Investigative Associates, could not be reached for comment.

Argenbright's move to expand to Hawaii puzzles local observers, given the fast- approaching takeover of airport security by the federal government. However, the company that currently provides screening services at several Hawaii airports is in bankruptcy. International Total Services Inc., based in Ohio, filed for corporate bankruptcy protection Sept. 13, two days after the terrorist attacks.

International Total Services has had the contract to provide security at Honolulu International Airport for the past seven years. Under current practice, security firms at the nation's airports are hired and paid by the private companies that own the airlines, not the airports.

In Hawaii, International Total Services has a contract with the Airlines Committee of Hawaii, a nonprofit consortium of the state's major airlines. The Honolulu Airport contract is worth a couple million dollars each year, said Joe Guyton, security coordinator for the committee. Argenbright representatives approached the committee 18 months ago about providing security screening for checkpoints at Honolulu Airport.

"At that time, of course, they weren't eligible," he said.

Guyton has not been contacted by Argenbright since then, he said. However, he's concerned by recent bad news about the company.

Shortly before Thanksgiving, Argenbright was temporarily ousted from Logan International Airport in Boston when officials learned the company was fined $1 million in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia after pleading guilty to felony charges of failing to perform background checks on security employees.

Argenbright was quickly reinstated at Logan after a Superior Court judge ruled that Massachusetts police broke the law by taking the Argenbright's license without a notice or a hearing. Today, Argenbright agreed to give up Logan's security contract.

Massachusetts police Col. John DiFava, Logan's interim security chief, defended his action in a recent interview with the Boston Herald, saying: "I did what I had to do. I stand proud of it." Logan International Airport was the starting point for the two hijacked flights that destroyed the World Trade Center. A hearing in the dispute is scheduled for today.

Earlier this month, Argenbright ousted its own chief executive after a man slipped by a company-run screening area at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport with a stun gun and several knives.

Argenbright, based in the major airline hub of Atlanta, is a unit of Securicor Plc, a publicly held security conglomerate headquartered in the United Kingdom. A spokesman could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Should Hawaii officials be worried about the firm's troubles? "It would be a concern," Guyton said. When asked how well International Total Services has performed at Honolulu Airport, Guyton said, the company had "been good, very good."

For now, the federal government has no control over security contracts at airports, said Tweet Coleman, Pacific area representative for the Federal Aviation Administration. When asked about the recent reports about Argenbright, Coleman said, "Knowing all that is one thing, but the FAA has no position."

"We have no direct authority over the private screeners as of now. What we have the authority over is over the airlines," Coleman said. For example, FAA representatives can watch the screening staff at work at Honolulu Airport. If the FAA doesn't like what it sees, it can talk to airline supervisors, who can have every single passenger screened again. That very scenario happened in Honolulu in the past few weeks, said Coleman, who declined to give details.

Security industry experts insist that when it comes to security lapses, the fault doesn't entirely lie with the security firms.

Rather, the experts blame the airlines' practice of cutting costs by hiring firms that offer the lowest bid for a contract. In turn, the security firms pay their guards barely more than the minimum wage.

And that still doesn't prevent insolvency. International Total Services, the only major U.S. airport security firm that is based in the United States, filed Chapter 11 reorganization bankruptcy in New York shortly after Sept. 11, saying it had $30.2 million in assets and $48.2 million in debts.

A week after the filing, International Total Services sued its former chairman and chief executive, Robert A. Weitzel, for $25 million, saying Weitzel had violated an agreement not to compete with the company. Weitzel denied the allegations and called for a shareholders meeting to replace the board of directors.

Last month, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court blocked the meeting. International Total Services has said it continues to operate its business without interruption.

The Board of Private Detectives and Guards, which issued the Argenbright license in Hawaii, falls under the state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs. Board members include Honolulu Police Chief Lee Donohue, Kauai Police Chief George Freitas, private detective Paul Akeo and private citizens Fred Hackbarth and Guy Kaulukukui. The chairman's spot is unfilled.

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