UNFRIENDLY SKIES

Airport Officers Allegedly Hazed Newer Agents With ‘Rape Table’

The ring of sexual harassment may have gone on for years with supervisors’ knowledge, a whistleblower alleges.

Photo Illustration by the Daily Beast/Getty

When Customs and Border Protection agents at Newark Liberty International Airport reported years of sexually abusive hazing on a conference room table (known as the “rape table”), their supervisors’ only response was to remove the piece of furniture from the room, an agent formerly stationed at the airport alleges.

Rumors of ritualistic sexual assault swirled through Newark Airport’s Customs and Border Protection department long before CBP agent Charlie Smith transferred to the airport in 2015, he told The Daily Beast. Senior officers are accused of repeatedly luring newer agents into a dark room, restraining them, and grabbing at their genitals through their clothing.

The attacks allegedly took place in an airport office, on a table known as the “rape table” to victims and attackers, alike. And when one victim reported the attack to supervisors, CBP higher-ups skipped protocol to bury the incident, Smith said.

Smith was recently transferred out of Newark Airport for his own protection, after he reported his colleague’s attack to Senators Ron Johnson and Claire McCaskill’s whistleblower hotlines, he told The Daily Beast on Wednesday. The attack had been on fellow CBP officer Vito Degironimo, who came forward with two other current Newark CBP agents on Tuesday to describe their experiences with assault in the airport.

"Hazing wouldn’t do this justice,” CBP officer Degironimo told NBC New York. “This is complete assault. They take you in a room and your fellow officers are all watching as officers grab you.”

Degironimo, along with fellow officers Diana Cifuentes and Dan Arencibia, are considering a lawsuit, along with three unnamed officers, Smith said. Their attorney, Patrick Metz did not return a request for comment.

"Once the lights go out, they grab you up like a gang, and they forcibly throw you on the table and one officer ended up mounting me and pretty much riding me like a horse," Degironimo said. "I’m grabbed by other officers against my will. I don’t know how much more criminal you can get."

The attackers called the conference table the “rape table,” Degironimo said. Cifuentes described a similar conversation with one of her alleged attackers.

"He said, 'You deserve to be put on the rape table.' And that’s when he started chasing me,” Cifuentes told NBC. “I was held down by another officer and one additional officer taped me with green customs tape to the chair." On another occasion, an officer pulled a gun on her in the office, making her fear for her life, she alleged.

Arencibia told NBC that he escaped assault, but that his coworkers had been prepared to attack him on the table. They played the same song from the MTV show “Jackass” during their ritualized assaults, he said.

"It’s called the 'Party Boy song.' It’s something they played in the past and it becomes their theme for the event," Arencibia told NBC. "They’re monsters in a sense. They know that we can’t do anything about this."

Smith said the trio’s allegations are consistent with the stories of more than a dozen CBP officers who claimed to have been assaulted by a group of colleagues on the job. (Smith said he’d heard stories of 17 alleged assaults.)

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“Everybody has the same story,” Smith said. “Their MO is always the same. There’s a supervisor who turned the lights off in the room. They’d call [the victim] into the room, so it was pitch-black when he came in. They threw him down on the table and did what they did.”

One man, whom Smith said was sexually assaulted years ago, “had to seek professional counseling because it screwed up his head so much. He’s basically avoided working at the airport at detriment to his own family, because that’s where our overtime is at. Just to stay away with these people.”

The victims were predominantly men, Smith said, although women like Cifuentes were allegedly not immune.

“It’s happened to females who have been promoted to supervisor,” Smith said. One woman with whom he currently works “claims she had her breast grabbed and her ass grabbed.”

Smith had heard allegations of earlier assaults, which had allegedly gone unpunished. But when he learned that Degironimo had reported his attack to a supervisor, he hoped the department would follow protocol and launch an investigation.

“I kept hearing rumors about what happened to Vito. Everybody was talking about it on the entire team,” Smith said. He had previously held a leadership role in a CBP union in Philadelphia, “So I’m intimately familiar with how the discipline process usually works and how these investigations go.”

Usually a complaint of this nature would be delegated to an Internal Affairs task force, or handled internally using CBP supervisors from other areas. “I didn’t see any of these things happening,” he said.

Instead, supervisors allegedly removed the scene of the crime: the “rape table”.

“Their initial response was to remove the table from the office,” Smith said. “They subsequently sent out emails saying ‘report misconduct.’ They held a couple meetings or musters in the beginning of our shift saying ‘there was an incident sexual in nature. It’s being handled,’ when in reality it was not being handled.”

Frustrated with the lack of action, Smith reported the alleged assault to CBP’s Joint Intake Center, where he requested anonymity.

“I know how these things are viewed in the law enforcement community, and it is quite negatively,” Smith said. “They told me flat-out that they could do nothing to protect my anonymity and that everyone would know that I was the person that reported it. But there was no going back at that point.”

He went on to report the incident to whistleblower hotlines created by Senators Johnson and McCaskill, the majority and minority ranking members of the Senate’s Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

The incident is now under investigation with the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General, he said. Neither the Inspector General, nor the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees Newark Airport returned request for comment. In a statement to NBC, CBP confirmed that the Inspector General was investigating the allegations.

Fear of retaliation could potentially prevent some agents from speaking to investigators, one victim said.

“People are too scared to go anywhere because these guys are well connected," Degironimo told NBC. "Our immediate supervisors are best friends with these officers.”

Smith alleged a similar air of camaraderie among attackers and management.

“The people who did this are all senior officers,” he said. “They’ve all been on this team for a very long time. They all came up with the current supervisors who are in power now. They’re all best friends with [supervision], go out drinking with them.”

Smith said investigators will have years of allegations to examine.

“The earliest [victim] I know of was about nine years ago,” he said. “If this had happened to one officer and gone under the radar, how many other people did it happen to?”