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Airport remains mum on security breaches

How was a baggage handler able to keep his job, despite breaching security at Vancouver International Airport seven times before being arrested for smuggling $1.2 million worth of cocaine back in 2007?

Was there ever an investigation? And have steps been taken to ensure there's no repeat?

The public might never know.

The Vancouver International Airport Authority isn't talking, and neither is federal transport minister Denis Lebel, or Richmond MP Alice Wong.

The Richmond Review learned this week that convicted drug smuggler Steven Von Holtum bypassed airport security using his restricted area indentity card on 20 occassions while off duty as an Air Canada baggage handler prior to his arrest in 2007. There were six times when he accessed the restricted customs hall of the international terminal while he wasn't working, and on a seventh occasion while he was, despite being prohibited from doing so.

NDP border critic Brian Masse said the public has a right to know if an investigation was ever conducted into Von Holtum's breaches, and whether steps were taken to prevent a repeat.

"There's a due diligence for them to come clean and to give us confidence it isn't happening anymore and won't happen again," said Masse, MP for Windsor West.

"It's alarming," Masse said of the numerous breaches.

No senior Vancouver International Airport managers made themselves available for an interview.

But spokesperson Alana Lawrence via e-mail: "Safety and security of passengers, employees and tenants at YVR remains our top priority. The security systems at YVR are continually being enhanced. In the last six years, biometric screening and non-passenger screening have been introduced giving us one of the most robust screening programs."

Yet somehow, carrying an access card, Von Holtum used the airport like his personal playground.

Lawrence wouldn't say whether Von Holtum was ever reprimanded for accessing the customs hall seven times in 2007.

"In order to maintain a high level of security at the airport we do not disclose details of RAIC misuse—including number of infractions and reasons for its misuse."

She added that the airport authority "will ticket any people in violation of the RAIC use and Transport Canada can then follow up with an investigation."

But Transport Canada, other than explaining how RAIC cards are issued, wouldn't even say if there had been an internal investigation.

The RCMP, which conducted the investigation into Von Holtum, wouldn't reveal what other actions, if any, were taken resulting from the drug smuggling investigation.

Masse said the lack of public accountabilty is unacceptable.

"I think the minister of transport needs to step in," he said. "I think this merits an investigation that makes sure that nobody else is doing this."

There are 18,000 employees at the airport who have RAIC cards.

"They do have a right to know," Masse said, "especially given the amount of breaches."

Masse questioned how discussing someone who is no longer at the airport, and the breaches that took place, could undermine security.

"I don't buy that by keeping a secret, they're helping...that they're helping themselves or the general public. It just raises more questions. And it's a lack of accountability."

The airport authority is given the priviledge to operate in Vancouver, and make money doing so, he said, and "there's a certain amount of public trust...They can't wash their hands of this."

He questioned the point of putting in a robust security system, funded by air travellers, when there aren't people to actually process the data.

"There's quite a bit of public interest in this. I would be surprised if the minister doesn't act."

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