After government investigators reported finding that workers with counterfeit badges had gained access to restricted areas at Chicago O'Hare International Airport, it triggered a series of arrests that has officials questioning security at one of the nation's busiest airports.
Authorities arrested more than 20 suspects, all believed to be illegal immigrants, after federal agents found they were allegedly using fake and expired security badges that allowed them widespread access to the airport, including unfettered access to commercial planes.
The workers, who loaded food and cargo onto aircraft, were employees of Ideal Staffing Services Inc., a temporary employment company whose managers allegedly assisted in getting them bogus security badges.
A corporate officer and office manager employed with Ideal Staffing were also arrested Wednesday as part of the investigation.
"We can have no tolerance for people who set up businesses for people with fake identities to have access to secure areas of the airport," U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said at a press conference announcing the arrests.
Ideal Staffing's Mary Gurin, 36, of Carpentersville, Ill., and Norinye Benitez, 24, of Franklin Park, Ill., each face one count of harboring illegal aliens for financial gain, and an additional count of misuse of Social Security numbers.
Authorities said Benitez herself is in the United States illegally, and that Gurin was aware of her reputed illegal immigration status but still signed her airport badge application.
An affidavit filed by an Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agent stated that in a Nov. 4 interview with Benitez, she said that "Gurin is the person who directs her work at Ideal Staffing," and that "Benitez also stated that she advised Gurin that she was an illegal alien at around the time she began working for Ideal Staffing."
According to a separate affidavit detailing Benitez's alleged activities, on her application for a security badge "she used an SSN [Social Security number] with the last four digits of 6291. The SSN used was issued to a person with a different name in Iowa in 1973."
But authorities said Benitez's suspicious badge application is one of many they found in their investigation.
The government said more than 100 workers possessed fraudulently obtained badges originally issued by the Chicago Department of Aviation. The company managers allegedly gave their workers old or deactivated badges, which allowed access to secure areas at the facility, including the tarmac and cargo warehouses.
The affidavit stated that in one instance, Benitez told one of Ideal Staffing Solutions' workers to sort through "a box containing approximately 20 airport security badges" of past employees and "pick one with a picture that most closely resembled his own likeness." The employee, who is cooperating with the investigation, told investigators he used one of the badges in the box to gain access to a United Airlines cargo facility.
The agent's statement added that the Chicago Department of Aviation's records showed that the selected badge "had been deactivated and should not be used for airport security access," and that the employee was never fingerprinted for a background check as regulations require.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said that early last month, agents reviewed more than 150 badge applications submitted by the company for 120 of its employees. In the affidavit, the agent reported that "110 of the applications listed Social Security numbers that either do not exist or belong to other persons, some of which were deceased."
ABC News called Ideal Staffing's Bensenville, Ill., office, but a voice mail message left for Gurin has not been returned.
"The fact that we didn't pick this up, says that our system is broken and it's absolutely terrifying that this kind of situation would go on," House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., told ABC News.
If they are convicted, Gurin and Benitez could face a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison on the harboring charge, and five years for misusing Social Security numbers.
The workers arrested on state charges could face a maximum of three years in prison if found guilty.
Security officials said this case showed that despite all the billions spent securing airports since the Sept. 11 attacks, in some cases airports do not have a handle on who is working in sensitive areas or on some of the planes.
Concerned Homeland security officials told ABC News they are planning more investigations at airports across the country, worried that if such a breach could happen at O'Hare, it could happen anywhere.