Worker Alleges Airport Security Breaches

A former worker at San Francisco International Airport has sued the company responsible for security, alleging breaches that included allowing unchecked passengers to board aircraft, failing to detect weapons and alerting checkpoint managers about the presence of supposedly "covert" inspectors.

Gerry Berry, president of Covenant Aviation Security (search), the Illinois-based company that provides security at SFO, called the allegations "unsubstantiated" and the product of a "disgruntled employee."

In the suit filed Friday in San Francisco Superior Court, Gene Bencomo alleged that Covenant ignored a series of security breaches at the airport beginning in December 2003. The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages.

Among the most serious allegations by Bencomo was that Covenant developed an elaborate system to notify security checkpoint managers when inspectors, who are dressed like other passengers and known as "decoys," were in the airport.

The decoys try to carry fake bombs, weapons and other contraband through security checkpoints.

Bencomo says Covenant was attempting to inflate its pass rates on audits and win additional airport contracts. The three-year SFO contract, which expires in November, is worth about $72 million, according to TSA.

Mike Bolles, who investigated Bencomo's complaints for Covenant, countered that those "covert audits" have nothing to do with whether the company wins or keeps contracts.

"I think he's angling for a settlement," Bolles said of Bencomo. Bolles added he was unable to substantiate any of Bencomo's complaints and said Bencomo wasn't even working the day when inspectors were at SFO.

Both Bolles and Berry, the company's president, said Bencomo's lawyers told them in December if they paid Bencomo $3 million, they wouldn't go to the media and "all of this would disappear."

Nonetheless, the TSA is investigating Bencomo's complaints, according to spokesman Nico Melendez.

"Our goal is to ensure the safety of passengers. Anytime there's an allegation of impropriety ... we have to investigate," Melendez said, adding that TSA has been pleased and remains confident in Covenant's abilities.

Airports — with the approval of the Transportation Security Administration, which supervises security at U.S. airports — can allow private companies, like Covenant, to provide their security.

Bencomo said during his two years at SFO passengers routinely made it through security with knives, box cutters and, once, even a small chain saw.

"When I would mention these serious concerns to management, I was threatened with my job," Bencomo said.

Bencomo said he was demoted and eventually forced to quit.