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Pataki calls for background checks for airport workers

Citing an urgent need to protect the flying public, Gov. George Pataki stood before a baggage carousel at LaGuardia Airport Friday to demand that the state Assembly pass legislation requiring criminal background checks for all airport employees who work in secure areas.

But members of the state Assembly deflected Pataki’s criticism by asserting they had passed a similar bill of their own, while airline passengers said they were surprised such background checks were not already the norm.

Under Pataki’s legislation, any person who works in a so-called “sterile” area in the airport — meaning anyplace beyond the security screening lines — would have to undergo a criminal background check based on their fingerprints. No one convicted of violent felonies or other predetermined offenses, such as airport-related crimes, would be allowed to work there.

“We want to do the most we possibly can to protect the people of our state and the flying public,” Pataki said from the baggage claim area for Midwest Airlines in LaGuardia’s Central Terminal.

But without such legislation, “we just don’t know and have no way of knowing, and we have no legal way to find out” about an employee’s criminal past, Pataki added.

Pataki’s call came only one day after Gov. Jim McGreevy signed a similar measure in New Jersey, which must approve along with New York any legislation governing the region’s three major airports. LaGuardia, John F. Kennedy International Airport and Newark International Airport are all operated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a bi-state agency.

In New York, however, Pataki’s bill has won approval in the state Senate but has yet to get past the Assembly.

“The state Senate months ago overwhelmingly passed this legislation,” Pataki said. “The state Assembly is the only entity blocking implementation of that law at LaGuardia, at Kennedy, at Newark.”

State Sen. Frank Padavan (R-Bellerose), who joined Pataki at Friday’s news conference, said the legislation “fills the holes that need to be filled” in the state’s airport security regulations, which Pataki said go well beyond federal standards.

“No state is doing more at its airports than New York,” the governor said.

But Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) deflected blame away from his house of the Legislature, which approved a similar bill of its own in June.

“The Assembly passed legislation this year with nearly unanimous bipartisan support to enhance the safety of the flying public and airport employees by requiring the fingerprinting of all workers with access to secure areas at the state’s 20 largest airports,” Silver said. The fingerprints would then be used for background checks “aimed at weeding out prospective employees with criminal histories that make them potential security risks.”

He added that the Assembly’s bill “encompasses the principles” of the other legislation and said he expects negotiations to be held with the governor and Senate to consolidate them into a single measure.

Pataki’s legislation was greeted with general enthusiasm among air travelers, many of whom said they had thought such background checks were already standard practice.

“It surprises me that they don’t do that already,” said Mary Vallis, 25, a newspaper reporter from Toronto.

“Anything to make it safe. It makes sense,” said Concie Williams, a traveler from the island of Jamaica who was spending a few days in St. Albans. “The persons who are working in secure areas at least should have their backgrounds checked.”

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

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