WASHINGTON — Shawn Nguyen bragged that he could sneak anything past airport security using his top-secret clearance as a federal air marshal. And for months, he smuggled cocaine and drug money onto flights across the country, boasting to an FBI informant that he was "the man with the golden badge."
Michael McGowan used his position as an air marshal to lure a young boy to his hotel room, where he showed him child porn, took pictures of him naked and sexually abused him.
When Brian "Cooter" Phelps wanted his ex-wife to disappear, he called a fellow air marshal and tried to hire a hit man nicknamed "the Crucifixer."
The Federal Air Marshal Service presents the image of an elite undercover force whose members are responsible for making split-second decisions to stop a terrorist and protect innocent passengers.
But since the 9/11 attacks, more than three dozen federal air marshals have been charged with crimes and hundreds more have been accused of misconduct, an investigation by ProPublica, a non-profit journalism organization, has found. Cases range from drunken driving and domestic violence to aiding a human-trafficking ring and trying to smuggle explosives from Afghanistan.
Police reports, court records, internal memos and e-mails indicate that air marshals have been convicted of bribery, bank fraud and abducting a hired escort while on layover. They've slept on planes and lost diplomatic documents on a whiskey-tasting trip in Scotland.
Eighteen air marshals have been charged with felonies, including three who were hired despite criminal records or having been fired from other law enforcement jobs.
Last spring, after U.S. embassies, airlines and foreign police complained about air marshal misconduct overseas, the Air Marshal Service dispatched supervisors on international missions.
From 33 to more than 3,000
Before 9/11, the Air Marshal Service was a nearly forgotten force of 33 agents. Now housed in the Transportation Security Administration, the agency has a $786million budget and 3,000 to 4,000 air marshals; the official number is classified.
Only a small fraction of them have been charged with crimes, and some misconduct happens in all police agencies. But the stakes are unique for air marshals. Because passengers are in firing range and there is no backup law enforcement at 30,000 feet, the job demands swift and sound judgment.
Under government policies, air marshals found guilty of felonies were fired or forced out. However, 10 who were convicted of misdemeanors, mostly drunken driving, were allowed to stay on.
"I don't think a person should have a criminal record and keep their job with the Air Marshal Service — including a DWI," says U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, who became alarmed after a Houston TV station reported on three such cases.
Robert Bray, director of the Air Marshal Service, says the misconduct cases don't represent the exemplary work done by the vast majority of air marshals.
"We can reassure the public that these dedicated professionals go out there every day and put their lives on the line to make sure that everyone is safe," Bray says. "I don't want them to be tarred by … a few allegations from a few years ago."
Bray and other officials declined to discuss specific cases, citing privacy laws.
Current and former air marshals say the agency continues to struggle with policing its ranks, a problem that surfaced in its post-9/11 buildup.
Since then, the Air Marshal Service has had three leaders, has been moved four times to different parent agencies and was sharply criticized in Congress for enforcing a dress code that some agents believed blew their cover.
"It starts with the urgency to (hire and train recruits) … in a ridiculous amount of time," says Don Strange, the former special agent in charge of the Atlanta office and a finalist to lead the agency in 2006.
"Things start to spin out of control."
The cream of the crop?
The government rushed to hire thousands of air marshals after 9/11.
Partly motivated by enduring images of hijacked jets hitting the World Trade Center, the Pentagon aflame and a charred Pennsylvania field, 200,000 applied.
The Air Marshal Service had an acceptance rate of about one in 40 — four times tougher than Harvard.
Even so, recruits weren't necessarily the cream of the crop.
Shortly after joining the agency, three air marshals were indicted in corruption investigations at their former law enforcement agencies.
One, Louis Pirani, had been hired in 2002 while under FBI investigation on suspicion of skimming profits from drug couriers as a sheriff's deputy in Arkansas. He eventually was convicted of lying to investigators and wound up going to prison.
Two weeks after joining the air marshals in April 2002, Shawn Nguyen filed for bankruptcy. Three years later, the former narcotics officer began carrying cash and cocaine past airport security for a man he knew as a drug trafficker, but who'd already turned to the FBI.
"I don't care what's in the (expletive) package, you know what I mean? Just tell me how much it is and what I'm getting in money," Nguyen told the informant, according to court records. "I'm the man with the golden badge."
Nguyen was sentenced to seven years in prison.
Brian Phelps had worked at five small police departments in Alabama before becoming an air marshal.
Phelps was fired from the job he held the longest for losing his temper and acting "irrationally" before thinking things through, prosecutors said.
He quit another job in Douglas, Ala., rather than be fired for misconduct in a patrol car, Douglas Mayor Paula Phillips said in an interview.
In 2005, Phelps, who was known as "Cooter" among fellow air marshals, told a colleague he wanted to see his wife's picture on a milk carton, court transcripts say.
He asked the air marshal whether he knew anyone who could help. The colleague said he did: "The Crucifixer."
The colleague told the Air Marshal Service, and after several contacts with FBI agents posing as hit men, Phelps was arrested.
He later got 25 years in prison.
Another air marshal was hired despite two past felony charges. David Kellerman was arrested on charges of dealing in stolen property in 1983 and carrying a concealed weapon in 1990.
Although judgment was withheld in both cases, Florida court records show Kellerman received probation.
In September, Kellerman, a former Green Beret and Purple Heart recipient, got 27 months in prison after being caught hiding a cache of weapons that included AK-47s and a grenade launcher stolen while he was on leave from the Air Marshal Service for military duty in Afghanistan.
Because air marshals receive top-secret security clearances, background checks are supposed to include criminal history searches dating back 10 years. Credit reports and interviews with relatives, neighbors and employers also are required.
Kellerman's charges predated the 10-year check period.
In Phelps' case, three officials — Justice Ashley, former assistant police chief in Guntersville, Ala.; Chad Long, the current Douglas police chief, and Phillips — said they couldn't recall the Air Marshal Service contacting anyone to make a background check.
It's unclear whether Pirani's FBI scrutiny and Nguyen's bankruptcy were missed or disregarded.
A 2004 report by the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general also flagged gaps in background checks.
It said nearly one-third of 504 applicants recommended for hire had potentially disqualifying problems, including arrests, bankruptcies or disciplinary penalties.
At a congressional hearing this summer, Poe grilled TSA Administrator Kip Hawley about the Texas DWI cases, which included one air marshal who had a prior drunken-driving conviction.
In a subsequent letter to Poe, Hawley reported that 28 air marshals had been hired with misdemeanors on their records, and nine more kept their jobs after DWI convictions.
TSA policies state that employees who drive drunk "demonstrate a disregard for TSA's mission" and raise questions about their ability to deal with security threats. Yet the agency allows for a letter of reprimand as punishment, one of the lowest penalties.
"It's more serious than a letter saying, 'Don't do it again, try to do better,'" Poe said in an interview.
By comparison, the FBI mandates at least a 30-day suspension for drunken driving.
No office compiles uniform statistics about arrests of federal law officers, so comparing agencies is difficult.
The 2004 inspector general's report found 753 misconduct cases by air marshals over 20 months. Offenses included sleeping on duty and flunking drug tests.
After the inspector general's report, the agency said it tightened background procedures.
But Kellerman, Phelps and Nguyen all committed their crimes since then, and the service declined to say what's been done to check for other background problems that might have fallen through the cracks.
Looser hiring practices
Through the years, the air marshals have loosened some hiring practices:
*In 2002, the agency said recruits no longer had to pass an advanced test of firearms speed and accuracy in close quarters similar to an airplane.
*In late 2005, the agency began hiring TSA screeners, new college grads and others with no law enforcement experience.
*Two years ago, officials said air marshals no longer had to pass a written psychological test and interview with a psychologist or psychiatrist.
Bray, the Air Marshal Service director, says the changes did not lower hiring standards and that it's unfair to suggest a TSA screener or a recent college grad could not be up to par after training.
The Air Marshal Service still has the highest standard for shooting accuracy among federal police agencies, he says.
However, records show some marshals have misused weapons. In 2001, according to documents in a lawsuit, a Las Vegas air marshal left his handgun in a plane's lavatory, where a teenager found it.
In 2003, a police report said a New York air marshal pulled his gun on two people in a dispute over a parking space.
In April, a Phoenix air marshal fired his gun during a fight outside a bar, said Arlington, Va., police spokesman John Lisle.
Two other cases show why a psychological evaluation might be valuable.
Orlando air marshal Marcus Rogozinski was on a mission in 2006 when he showed a flight attendant a book with pictures of blue crystals, supervisor Richard Lozada wrote in an e-mail.
Rogozinski told her she could turn a glass of water murky or clear using her thoughts, according to public records.
"I can't believe he is able to carry a gun!" the flight attendant told Rogozinski's partner, Paul Steward, who reported the incident.
In 2007, a flight attendant complained that Rogozinski "was talking about all kinds of crazy stuff like outer space," according to a memo from air marshal David Cameron.
In June, Rogozinski was convicted of bank fraud for trying to cash a $10.9million check from a woman he said he believed was Cambodian royalty.
When New York air marshal Michael McGowan was sentenced to a sex offender-treatment unit in 2006, he told the judge he needed help. McGowan had been caught two years earlier in a child-porn sting.
Investigators learned he'd been molesting a boy since 2002 and had enticed him by saying he was staying nearby on air marshal business.
Even after his conviction, court records show, McGowan called the boy from prison and had sexual conversations with him.
Incidents on overseas flights
This year, a rash of complaints about air marshal misconduct on overseas missions set off alarms.
The Air Marshal Service would not provide details. However, ProPublica obtained an April 15 memo from Dana Brown, then director of the agency, warning staff members that the behavior threatened to cause diplomatic problems on international routes, "some of the most important we fly."
"In foreign countries, some have behaved in a manner that may jeopardize our ability to continue to operate effectively," Brown wrote.
He ordered "Quality Assurance Teams" of supervisors to monitor air marshals on international missions.
"These are highly trained federal air marshals with guns on planes," says P. Jeffrey Black, a Las Vegas air marshal.
"If they need chaperones, then we're all in serious trouble."
Bray says the agency was not able to substantiate the allegations of overseas misconduct and that Brown was simply being proactive.
Black says air marshals need the kind of law enforcement experience that comes from making decisions on the street.
Poe, a former judge and prosecutor who is on the House aviation subcommittee, wants to take up the issue in the next Congress.
Air marshals "all have to be of high quality, not most of them," he says. "We can't take a chance that they will make a mistake."
Contributing: Jamie Wilson of ProPublica