Eighteen New York airport workers have been arrested and charged with stealing more than 100,000 mini bottles of liquor and other duty-free items valued at over $750,000 over the past five months, according to authorities.
The John F. Kennedy International Airport workers include 15 present and former food and beverage truck drivers as well as three security guards.
"The defendants arrested in Operation Last Call violated and sold out their position of trust and access to the secure areas of the airport, including access to commercial aviation, all for personal greed," Inspector General Robert Van Etten said in a news release. "More egregious, is the conduct of three security guards employed to secure, protect and report crime at JFK International Airport but who also were involved in selling out their positions of trust to line their pockets."
Officials allege that Sky Chefs truck drivers would remove the unsold liquor bottles from the plane and either transport them to their own personal cars or sell them to co-workers on the loading docks, instead of transporting them back to the storage facility.
They further alleged that security guards were given some of the bottles in return for not carefully inspecting the vehicles at checkpoints.
"If a terrorist wanted to breach airport security, the alleged actions of these defendants gave then a back-door opportunity to do so," Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said.
The accused workers allegedly sold the mini bottles of booze. Officials said in a news release that depending on the brand of liquor, the black market prices ran from 55 cents for a bottle of Baileys to $1.25 for a bottle of Courvoisier. In flight, those drinks are sold for $7.
Investigators believe the theft ring may have been operating for several years.
The scheme was uncovered when the Port Authority Inspector General's office "developed information" that employees were stealing alcohol at the airport. Investigators spent months conducting surveillance and made 57 undercover buys of more than 57,000 mini bottles.
Most of the accused were arrested on Wednesday after they were called "to attend an important security meeting at the airport," according to the DA's office.
The 18 defendants range from ages 20 to 64 and some could face up to 15 years in prison. The various charges include criminal possession of stolen property, bribe receiving and grand larceny.
"What is extremely troubling in this post-9/11 world is that all of these individuals had unfettered access to the secure aeronautical area of the airport and that gives pause for concern that they could have or would have sold out their access and trust for more nefarious or sinister purposes," Van Etten said.
Authorities vowed to "bring justice to those who corrupt the integrity and security of our airports and facilities."