Delta Fires Employee Who Exposed JFK Security Breach
When a Delta employee complained about slipping a mysterious suitcase past customs officials onto a plane, supervisor Mohammed Taj said: "Breaching security for what?" Taj asked, at one point. "We are not doing anything illegal...What you are talking about security?"
[Black Star News Exclusive]
Ghanaian Ex-Delta Employee Whistleblower Alleges Retaliation And Coverup After He Exposed JFK Security Breach
An ex-Delta Airlines employee says he was fired Tuesday after he complained to the company's CEO that his supervisor ordered him to breach security at JFK International Airport.
The ex-employee says he was ordered by a supervisor on January 2 to evade customs officials and deliver a mysterious suitcase to ramps where it was to be loaded on containers for out-bound flights.
The ex-employee says the supervisor feared that Delta would have been fined had the suitcase gone through proper inspection process. "We are not doing anything illegal," another supervisor later told the employee.
The former Delta Airlines employee, Eric Amankwah, 28, who is of Ghanaian ancestry, says the company may not have learned anything from the near tragedy of Detroit-bound flight 253 when a Nigerian national Umar Farouk Abdulmatallab tried to blow up the plane on Christmas Day.
(Abdulmutallab was indicted on six charges Wednesday, including attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction and attempted murder. Abdulmatallab used cash to purchase his ticket in Ghana. He then travelled to his native Nigeria and boarded the U.S. -bound flight from Abuja, the Nigerian capital, on to Amsterdam then to Detroit.)
But even as U.S. security and aviation officials demand for more beefed up airport security overseas, these officials should also investigate transgression and breaches at domestic airports, including JFK, says Amankwah, the axed Delta employee.
Amankwah says on January 2, just one week after the near disaster in Detroit, he was ordered by his supervisor, Yvonne Green, to evade customs officials and to deliver an unattended suitcase to other airport employees to have it loaded on an out-going flight without inspection.
He said his supervisor told him Delta would be fined if the luggage was sent through normal channels.
Amankwah says when he complained in an e-mail message to top Delta executives, including CEO Richard H. Anderson, about the apparent security breach allegedly commissioned by his supervisor he was suspended on Tuesday--since it was his second suspension within a month, it was an automatic termination.
Amankwah says he wants his job back. He says he has experienced emotional suffering resulting from the retaliation. "How can they fire me when I am the one who is exposing the security breach? If I don't do it who knows what could have been in that suitcase after Flight 253?"
Amankwah says the suitcase may have been bound to the Bahamas, judging by its tag, "NAS," which stands for Nassau. He says he didn't know where the suitcase was from or whether it was from a flight that had arrived from overseas for connection at JFK.
Typically, when passengers arrive from International flights, immigration officials stamp their passports, they then pick up their luggage, and have the luggage cleared by customs, before they exit if it's their final destination.
Passengers with connecting flights are guided by agents like Amankwah through a designated door.
Amankwah says while at his post on January 2 monitoring the West Re-Check door, Green, a supervisor, approached him at around 3:30 PM and said she had a "special assignment" for him.
"She directs me to this luggage," he says. "It was adjacent to the carousel. It was a suitcase. Bluish color," he recalls. "She said 'this luggage was brought here by mistake. She did not say who brought it or what was in it."
He said Green directed another Delta agent to watch his post while he was sent on the "assignment."
Amankwah says he was extremely bothered by the odd assignment.
"Everyone has to go through customs," he says. "Even if something is found on an inbound international flight that item has to be through customs."
Yet, he says, he had no choice but to follow Green's instructions. "She assured me that that's what's normally done," he said.
He swiped his Port Authority ID card through a side door indicated by Green and punched in his security code for access. The door was opposite from the carousel and out of view of customs officials.
He said he went through the door to the floor where another Delta employee told him to take the suitcase to a specific ramp, Pier 12.
"The agent on Pier 12 asked me why I was coming from International Arrivals and bringing the luggage up. I said Yvonne Green said it's okay. That they did it all the time" Amankwah recalls.
Amankwah said when he returned downstairs Green was waiting for him on the other side of the door with Mohammed Taj, the supervisor, who had suspended him earlier in an unrelated incident.
"She said to him 'Eric completed the job.' Then Taj said 'good' and left," Amankwah says.
Amankwah says when he mentioned the incident to co-workers he was told it was a security breach. Some even told him that in 2007 some Delta employees were arrested on drug smuggling charges.
Worried, he says he paged Green at 7 PM. "I said I was uncomfortable and asked her to give me an e-mail," confirming that she had sent him on the assignment.
"She said 'don't worry nobody is going to know about it.' I said 'you guys are trying to set me up.'" He said he then sent Green an e-mail message insisting that she provide him with a written confirmation about the assignment.
When he still had nothing in writing the following day, Amankwah then called both Green and Taj, separately, and tape-recorded the conversations in order to protect himself. He also e-mailed an account of the incident to the Delta senior officials, including CEO Richardson.
Black Star News reporters have heard the taped conversations and reviewed the e-mail messages which describe the sequence of the alleged incident. In the lengthy and detailed message to CEO Richardson, Amankwah says he complied with Green's instructions because "Yvonne is a lead agent, and I did not want to be accused of being insubordinate to my superior."
He also wrote that Green "further explained to me that Delta Airlines would get a fine if I took it through the normal channel."
In his e-mail message Amankwah says when he had persisted in demanding for written explanation of the "assignment" from Green, "She even went as far as to say I need to stop being paranoid. I explained to her SECURITY at JFK is a Serious issue and I do not feel comfortable Breaching Security and I need an email."
Amankwah says he has also forwarded the messages to the Department of Homeland Security and to an FBI official.
The conversations with his supervisors were tape recorded on January 3, Amankwah says. "I don't know why you're panicking like this," the person who answered the phone as Yvonne Green is heard telling Amankwah, in one conversation. "You didn't do anything wrong."
The conversation Amankwah subsequently had with Taj was more heated with Amankwah insisting that his superiors had used him as a scapegoat.
Taj is heard telling Amankwah that Green had made a wrongful judgment call by instructing him to evade custom and deliver the suitcase to the loading ramp. He said Green was trying to "save money for Delta" by avoiding a fine for the mysterious suitcase.
"Nothing is going to happen to anybody," Taj is heard assuring Amankwah. "I give you a guarantee for that." Elsewhere, Taj says, "Don't go out of your mind that you're going to get penalized."
Amankwah insisted that Taj should have reported the incident to security for investigation and also ordered him to go back and retrieve the suitcase after Green told him about the incident.
"Breaching security for what?" Taj asked, at one point. "We are not doing anything illegal...What you are talking about security?"
Taj also said he himself as well as Green wouldn't get in trouble for the incident and at another point said: "I know she made a wrong call....I did advise her...But bringing that bag back would have been wrong...."
Remarkably, in the recording Taj is also heard asking Amankwah if he knew what the suitcase had contained.
Amankwah says he was off on Sunday and Monday. Tuesday, January 5, before reporting back to work, Amankwah says he sent out the e-mail messages to top Delta officials. When he arrived at work he also reported the incident to his immediate supervisor Ralph Albanese.
When other Delta managers insisted on speaking with him alone without the presence of Albanese, he said he would not be comfortable.
Stephanie Baker, Delta's Director at JFK then said she was suspending him for insubordination. He had already been told that a second suspension would be a termination from the $10 an hour job.
Amankwah says he was suspended for the first time on the unrelated matter on December 12. He had given carry on item to a relative of his to take to Ghana on a Delta flight.
He says shortly before he gave his cousin the luggage with gifts, a Delta manager, Debra Cepada had sent some gifts to a Delta station manager in Ghana, who was getting married, Amankwah says.
"She gave it to me and I gave it to a flight attendant and that went unaccompanied on the plane," Amankwah says.
Cepada later acknowledged sending the gifts when Taj and other Delta supervisors questioned her in front of Amankwah, he says. Also present at that meeting that led to his first suspension was Vanessa Womble, Delta's Station Manager for JFK.
"At that meeting, Cepada says she got approval from station manager Ronica Mitchum," Amankwah said. "But I was basically suspended for doing the same thing."
"Cepada was never suspended; nothing happened to her," Amankwah said, noting that Cepada was a White employee.
When contacted by The Black Star News today, a Delta spokesperson said both Green and Taj were off today. Delta corporate communications did not return with an explanation after The Black Star News provided detailed information about Amankwah's allegations.
Albanese, declined to comment when reached by telephone except to confirm that he was indeed Amankwah's immediate supervisor. "I have no comment about the situation," he said.
Delta flies a non-stop flight from JFK to Ghana five times a week.
Amankwah says he was Delta's only Ghanaian ticketing employee and also helped with translation sometimes. He says he has a degree in Business Management from Stone Hill College, in Massachusetts.
A profile of Amankwah on a popular website for Diaspora Ghanaians called Ghanaweb.com says, "Eric is a proven entrepreneur, down to earth and always willing to take advice from the well experienced, he blends in wherever he goes and feels proud about the community. He has also taken upon himself to update Delta Airlines about the community's concerns that has to be dealt with immediately.
He always promotes Delta Airlines at any event he attends."
EDITOR'S NOTE: Employees of Delta or any other airline with stories about similar breaches or transgressions please call (212) 481-7745 in the strictest confidence
ADDITION TO ORIGINAL REPORT, Jan. 8, 2010: Delta's new position is that Amankwah has not been terminated and that the company had been trying to contact him, The Black Star News has learned. Amankwah says he was stripped of his company ID and that his Delta e-mail account was disabled.
April 7, 2010 Update: Amankwah says he kept insisting that Delta take corrective measures to ensure that security didn't occur again. He says the company kept insisting that he surrender copies of his taperecording. He was subsequently terminated.
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