In the nearly 20 years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Federal Air Marshal Service has suffered enough controversy, scandals and investigations to fill an armory. Its latest scandal and investigation may not come as much of a surprise, but air marshals in the know have given it a catchy name.
This time, they’re calling it “Bonergate.”
Roughly 20 air marshals posted to the agency’s Dallas field office have been disciplined in recent weeks and months following a secretive two-year internal investigation of a Viagra-smuggling and distribution ring among employees and supervisors there, current and former air marshals said. Whether the practice extends beyond Dallas to other air marshals’ offices around the country is unclear, but sneaking drugs back into the country is not unheard of among federal air marshals.
The approximately 3,000 armed law enforcement officers assigned to safeguard flights and other U.S. transportation systems against terrorist attacks and criminal activity are highly regarded for their skilled marksmanship but seem to have largely brought that trouble onto themselves in recent years.
There have been various arrests — including a murder-for-hire plot, a gun-buying scheme that shook the top levels of the agency and allegations of discrimination against minorities, women and gay people. Then came the “badge bunny” who rearranged flights for trysts followed by the sex tape of a prostitute made with a government phone that underscore an overarching party-hearty attitude rife with misconduct.
Their latest scandal, involving the little blue pill used to treat erectile dysfunction, centers on a handful of air marshals who purchased the medication abroad, where often it costs significantly less than in the United States, and, skirting checkpoints, secreted the prescription drugs back into the country. These air marshals, who do not face the same levels of security screening as the flying public, then sold the pills to co-workers. Some simply asked to be reimbursed, while others allegedly made a small profit, current and former air marshals said.
Law enforcement officials say they see several potentially criminal violations, including the importation of the prescribed medicine for distribution without a license. They point out that the ingredients used to produce the drug abroad may not have been properly inspected or meet FDA requirements, as counterfeiting is also a consistent issue. Pfizer’s patent on Viagra ended this year, but it has been making a generic version since 2017.
According to the drug manufacturer, Viagra can cause side effects, including sudden vision and hearing loss and prolonged erections, which could impair an air marshal’s ability to function while on duty.
For some air marshals and lawmakers, it’s yet another reason to take a deep look at the service, which has had its mission and effectiveness assailed for years. It also raises questions about insider threats, as air marshals are subject to fewer security measures.
At the same time, other current and former air marshals don’t see what the big deal is in doing a favor for friends.
In Dallas, where the air marshals’ ranks number around 200, those caught up in the Viagra ring faced disciplining that ranged from three to at least 10 days of suspension. With decreased air travel because of COVID-19, it’s unclear how much the suspensions affected operations.
At least two others may face termination stemming from evidence uncovered during the investigation, according to current and former air marshals. Another air marshal involved in the importing of Viagra resigned after he was suspended, though it’s unclear if his suspension was directly related to the smuggling ring.
Two of those air marshals, who were contacted through intermediaries, declined to comment. A third could not be reached for comment. Yahoo News is not naming those air marshals because they have not been charged with a crime.
A local supervisor, Kevin Pitman, instructed air marshals not to speak publicly about the now former employee, according to an email shared with Yahoo News. But one air marshal, who requested anonymity to speak about the matter, said it was kept very quiet in the Dallas office, and beyond.
“Everybody involved had to sign an NDA [nondisclosure agreement],” the air marshal said. “There was not a lot of real heavy-handed discipline. People took their lumps — it could have been worse — and went on with it.”
In December, the Transportation Security Administration, which is the parent agency of the Federal Air Marshal Service, denied a public records request for documents related to any inquiries into the Dallas air marshals’ scheme to import Viagra and other medicines and supplements, citing “open investigations,” according to correspondence shared with Yahoo News.
A TSA spokesman declined to comment because of “potential or pending administrative inquiries or investigations.”
“TSA holds all of its employees to the highest standard of professional conduct and takes every misconduct accusation very seriously,” spokesman R. Carter Langston told Yahoo News. “We investigate each allegation thoroughly and take appropriate administrative action when substantiated. Those found responsible for misconduct are subject to disciplinary action that may include removal.”
A separate criminal complaint has been reported to the FDA, according to current and former air marshals. Meanwhile, the Senate Commerce Committee could add to the number of investigations in the next Congress.
A committee aide said that the panel had just received a whistleblower complaint about the Viagra scheme in Dallas, but had not yet evaluated it. The aide said continued oversight of the TSA and the air marshals was among the committee’s priorities in the new year.
“The public record [on the air marshals] is concerning all on its own,” said the aide, who was not authorized to speak publicly. “It’s worthy of our oversight.”
The air marshals have been the subject of one congressional hearing and investigation after another since they expanded from the 33 officers who were on duty during 9/11 to the thousands who fill their ranks today. The Federal Air Marshal Service has also seen its budget sliced from a high of $966 million in 2012 to $755.6 million in 2020.
The job can be exhausting and mind numbing, air marshals say, citing the harmful physical effects of constant flying and jet lag. There have been reports and studies of alcohol abuse to combat sleep deprivation, in addition to other mental health problems that in recent years have reached “a crisis point” among air marshals.
A February 2020 Government Accountability Office report found that the air marshal service has made progress in addressing workplace issues.
But some problems linger, such as the agency’s failure to assess the health of its workforce. Then there’s the ongoing issue of chemical abuse. Air marshals have been buying prescription and other performance-enhancing drugs abroad for years.
Bill Beller, the air marshal chapter president for the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, said he had referred around five air marshals in Dallas who had come to him seeking legal representation related to the investigation.
“We have pride in our positions, and some people — whatever they did — I believe it was an error or error in judgment,” he said. “Men can go to doctors and get a prescription. So why would they have to go and buy it and not know what they’re getting?”
Lawrence Berger, general counsel for the FLEOA, declined to comment, citing attorney-client privilege, as “these are pending matters.”
Tim O’Connell, a retired supervisory air marshal and former DEA agent, said that after an initial probe, the matter should have been handed off to outside criminal investigators, not handled internally. O’Connell, who retired from the air marshals’ Orlando office in 2012, said not doing so shows a lack of accountability on the part of management, and law enforcement should be held to a higher standard, even when off duty.
“Obviously that’s a big no-no,” he said of sneaking Viagra back into the country. “The fact that they were turning it into a selling thing is kind of problematic too. If you were on a mission and got some for yourself, that’s one thing. But to be peddling it in the office? That’s worse.”
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