A Severe Case of Homeland Insecurity

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By Marc Fisher
Thursday, November 16, 2006

After a long, tough day of screening luggage at Dulles International Airport, Michael Sbandi and Joel Mayer retired to the Sweetwater Tavern for a few drinks. A few became too many, and right about closing time, a big crate that appeared on the floor of the bar suddenly struck the two young men as a challenge.

"As I got up, I stumbled into this box," Sbandi recalls. "We jingled it around, and it felt like there were plates or glasses in there. We looked at each other and laughed and hoisted it up."

Sbandi and Mayer had watched too many episodes of MTV's "Jackass." They decided to see whether they could take the crate out of the restaurant without the staff noticing.

They could and did. Laughing through their haze, they dumped the crate -- which contained the bar's liquor bottles for overnight storage -- in the trunk of Mayer's car and drove off.

That was in June. Five months later, Sbandi and Mayer are in legal limbo, indefinitely suspended from their jobs as officers for the Transportation Security Administration. More ominously, they are the subject of an investigation by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which says it has been looking into whether the two employees constitute a threat to "the security of the traveling public."

The federal investigation continues despite the fact that the Loudoun County sheriff's detective who was assigned to the case after the bar reported the crate missing decided that Sbandi and Mayer had not committed a crime.

Detective Bobbi Ochsman concluded that what happened that night at the tavern was "a prankish bad act" but not grand larceny, because the duo never intended to "deprive the owner permanently" of the crate and its contents. "The boys made an effort to return the property to the owner the following day," she wrote in an affidavit. "Each expressed a sincere remorse for their bad act."

But Jon Norton, director of business development and operations for Great American Restaurants, which owns the Sweetwater Tavern in Sterling, says it was no harmless prank. "I and others here spent lots of hours trying to figure out who took this merchandise. The action of these individuals has caused a disappointing situation all around. Anytime someone takes something of value, it's not a harmless prank."

Sbandi, who is 22 and has worked for the TSA for two years, is the first to say that his behavior was appalling. He says he and Mayer, 21, had "a huge amount to drink, 10 or 11 drinks apiece." He says he had never had that much to drink before and has not had any alcohol since. The two men have volunteered to take an alcohol awareness class, sign a "last chance" agreement and accept monitoring by Loudoun deputies.

To Loudoun authorities, the salient facts are that the two men returned the crate and paid the bar $942 in restitution (once liquor leaves the premises, it cannot be sold to customers).

To Homeland Security, however, what really matters is that Sbandi and Mayer admitted to authorities that they "engaged in some wrongdoing that would constitute misconduct" under TSA rules. "I have serious concerns that allowing you to remain at the workplace would jeopardize the security of the traveling public," wrote Donald MacGregor Ross, deputy federal security director of the TSA, responding to the two men's appeal of their suspension.

"This is ridiculous," said Mindy Farber, a Rockville lawyer who is representing the two men. "In the midst of so many important things going on in the world, Homeland Security spends five months investigating this?"

Since being suspended, Sbandi has been living with his parents in Winchester, finding work as an airline mechanic's apprentice and doing other odd jobs. He estimates that his income has dropped from $35,000 to maybe $12,000. "It was just a stupid, spur-of-the-moment prank," he said of that night at the bar. "But the way things are now, they don't care what kind of person I was or how good my work record was. I'm just tired of waiting; I wish they'd either fire us or punish us and let us get back to work."

Being rip-roaring drunk is no excuse for ripping off a crate of liquor. The feds should send a message that its security officers must behave responsibly; a suspension without pay and counseling would have done that. After all this time, however, it's clear that the government is just waiting the men out. Since firing them would likely bring a lawsuit and an even more expensive mess, the feds are sitting tight, hoping that the two will just quit and go away.

Given the threats facing the nation, I'd like to think the architects of our domestic defense might have better uses for their investigative staff than spending five months probing what two drunk guys did with a crate full of bottles.

E-mail:marcfisher@washpost.com


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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