by Mark Wilson
"Once the lights go out, they grab you 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," said Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer Vito Degironimo. "I'm grabbed by other officers against my will. I don't know how much more criminal you can get. Hazing wouldn't do this justice. This is complete assault. They take you in a room and your fellow officers are all watching as officers grab you."
Now those fellow officers are watching senior CBP officers Tito Catota, 38, Parmenio Perez, 40, and Michael Papagni, 32, face arrest and federal prosecution for forcible assault, and impeding, intimidating and interfering with two male customs officers while they were in duty. Eleven other officers have also been suspended, pending the outcome of the federal investigation.
Degironimo was apparently just one of many victims of a bizarre hazing ritual employed by senior CBP officers assigned to an elite passenger screening team called the Passenger Enforcement Rover Team (PERT) at the Newark Liberty International Airport, in Newark, New Jersey.
"The defendants, who were members of a unit responsible for identifying dangerous contraband and threats to national security, allegedly subjected their own colleagues to senseless physical abuse, all while on duty" at the airport, said appalled acting United States Attorney William Fitzpatrick. "This behavior would be abhorrent in any environment, especially one serving a critical law enforcement function. The hardworking men and women who protect our borders deserve better."
Two male victims are mentioned, but not named, in the Indictment. One was assigned to PERT in October 2016. During his first two weeks on the job, Papagni told him that the PERT office table was known as the "rape table," and the new officer would have to get on it.
Sometime later, the officer was scanning a document related to a drug seizure when Papagni warned him that he had five minutes to get out of the office or Papagni would teach him "what this team is about." Someone then shut off the lights and Papagni, Catota and another person held the new officer down as Perez got on top of him and ground against his genitals through his clothing, simulating a sex act. The victim tried to push him off but couldn't.
The second victim identified in the Indictment was forced onto the "rape table" in November 2016. He saw an officer lock the office door as Catota, Papagni, and Perez grabbed him and threw him on the table. As two of them held him down, one of them got on top of him and ground against his leg, again simulating a sex act.
Although only two victims are mentioned in the indictment, three CBP officers went public, describing behavior similar to that described in the criminal complaint. A fourth officer who was not assigned to PERT said he'd been taped to a chair by fellow officers and feared suffocation when a plastic bag was placed over his head.
All four officers requested transfers out of Newark and were interviewed by the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General, which launched an investigation in January 2017.
United States Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman also wrote acting CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan in May 2017, demanding action.
CBP welcomes the indictment and "fully supported" the IG investigation, according to CBP spokesman Anthony Bucci. "We do not tolerate misconduct in our ranks and are committed to a safe workplace environment free of harassment or intimidation," said Bucci.
Representative Watson Coleman commended the CBP and DHS response, but demanded more. "Beyond the outcome of this specific incident, we need to work diligently to ensure that CBP and DHS leadership take the steps necessary to eliminate abuse and other inappropriate conduct issues within the agency," declared Watson Coleman. "It is imperative the men and women who help keep our nation secure can do their jobs safely and with dignity and that they are held to the highest legal, ethical and performance standards."
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