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Where Things Stand: Air Marshals Under Arrest

Dec. 26: This post has been corrected.

Editorâs note: As part of our year-end coverage, weâre checking in on the latest on each of our in-depth stories.

ProPublicaThe Federal Air Marshal Service presents the image of an elite undercover force charged with making life-and-death decisions that demand sound judgment. A ProPublica investigation, published with USA Today in mid-November, found that dozens of air marshals have been charged with crimes -- from drunken driving and drug smuggling to aiding a human trafficking ring and solicitation to commit murder.

Since the story ran, one air marshal pleaded guilty to felony injury to a child and another was charged with bribery.

In early December, Louie Esparza was sentenced to six years probation in district court in Fort Worth, Texas, for charges related to a drunken golf cart crash that seriously injured his 12-year-old daughter.

Then, on Dec. 15, Fremon Myles was charged with two counts of bribery of a public official in Philadelphia federal court. According to court records, in May 2004, Myles accepted a $2,500 bribe in exchange for conducting a check of a law enforcement database to see if an individual had any outstanding arrest warrants. Prosecutors say that in January 2006, he accepted a second bribe in exchange for looking up a vehicle registration after being given a license plate number.

Although the actual number is classified, unofficial estimates put the number of air marshals at somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000. The service's director, Robert Bray, said in November that incidents reported in the story involved "a small percentage of bad apples" and that the agency already was doing a lot to address misconduct.

"Over the last seven years our vetting process has continually gotten better, and those bad apples have left the bunch," Transportation Security Administration spokesman Christopher White said Friday.

The day the story was published, the Air Marshal Service and its parent agency, the Transportation Security Administration, posted two statements on its public Web site stating that the ProPublica investigation presented "a distorted view." The next day though, Bray, sent an internal e-mail (PDF) to the rank-and-file, stating: "I am sure you are just as personally and professionally embarrassed by these incidents as I am."

"We must dedicate ourselves to root out and report any instance of misconduct or criminal behavior," Bray wrote. "The public expects nothing less than adherence to the highest professional standards; we must demand no less from ourselves."

Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, told ProPublica in November that he wants to address the issue of air marshal misconduct when the new Congress is seated next year. Editorial writers also weighed in, calling for more rigorous background checks and pre-employment psychological tests.

"Failing to properly check applicants' background and then hiring them to fly, fully armed, on airplanes is a recipe for disaster," wrote the Las Vegas Sun. "Congress should make sure the agency cleans up its act and protects the flying public."

The Orlando Sentinel wrote that background checks should go further back than the current limit of 10 years, so they capture an applicant's entire criminal past. "Amazingly, air marshals also no longer need to pass psychologists' tests and interviews," the paper added. "But we'd feel a lot better knowing that anyone trained today to use a firearm alongside passengers 30,000 feet up had passed them."

Correction, Dec. 24, 2008: This story originally stated one air marshal was convicted of felony injury to a child. The air marshal, Louie Esparza, pleaded guilty to the charge, but the judge withheld judgment pending completion of the probation.

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