News Article - June 04 2006

Philly PD probes officers' airline freebies
  As city police officers who patrolled Philadelphia International Airport for more than five years apiece, Lt. Michael Lista and Officer Joseph Chicano certainly knew their turf. According to authorities, they also knew something else about airport life: how to finagle free flights. The Philadelphia Police Department and the District Attorney's Office are investigating whether the officers obtained almost $10,000 worth of free plane tickets by consistently buying refundable tickets on sold-out flights. Specifically, they want to know whether the officers received free vouchers for flights by volunteering to be "bumped" and also cashing in refundable tickets that they never intended to use. Authorities also want to know whether they did it while they were on the taxpayers' payroll.

   The officers, both retired in the last two months, deny wrongdoing, and blame US Airways for making false accusations that have blemished what both men describe as otherwise stainless careers of more than 30 years. "I did nothing wrong. I am strictly by the book and have never ever been accused of any type of corruption," said Lista, 53, whose last day of work was May 26. Chicano, 56, ended his tenure in April and said much the same thing: "I've never been accused of anything."

   According to US Airways and two sources familiar with the matter, the practice had been going on for almost a year when, last summer, during the busy Fourth of July weekend, airline employees became suspicious. That's when Lista and Chicano stood with other passengers waiting at a crowded gate for a plane headed to San Juan, Puerto Rico, the sources say. With word that this July 3 flight was oversold, the officers had volunteered to be "bumped." They got their wish. It's what happened next that raised questions.

   According to the sources, Chicano showed up in uniform at boarding time for a separate oversold flight that both had also booked for July 3. Recognizing Chicano as a police officer, an airline employee this time denied his request to "bump" the two refundable tickets purchased. With that outcome, the officers did not board the plane and got refunds on their tickets 45 minutes later. The pair in months earlier had also been bumped from flights they had booked to Cancun, Mexico; Las Vegas; and Orlando, Fla., sources said. "They would show up for the flight, get bumped, get a round-trip flight credit and also get a refund," US Airways spokesman Morgan Durrant said.

   After the July 3 incident, the airline conducted an internal investigation and then referred the matter to the District Attorney's Office, he said. Both officers were reassigned to another unit within 48 hours after the airline told the police what it had learned, said Capt. Dominic Mingacci, who leads the Airport Police District. The Police Department's Internal Affairs Unit wouldn't comment Friday on what has happened in the interim. "The only thing I can confirm is that there is an internal investigation," said Chief Inspector William Colarulo. "These officers can say what they want; time will tell what happened." The District Attorney's Office said only that the investigation was ongoing.

   "The behavior might lead a prosecutor to consider theft by deception charges," said Edward Ohlbaum, professor of law at Temple University. He noted that Pennsylvania crime statutes define deception as creating a false impression as to one's intensions. It was unclear Friday whether the officers were on duty during any of the alleged incidents, including the times when they booked flights. Capt. Benjamin Naish, department spokesman, would not say what hours the officers were paid to work on July 3. That information is a matter of public record. Lista - who said Friday that he had not been interviewed to date by Internal Affairs or the District Attorney's Office - gave a different version of what happened. He says he and Chicano initially booked the refundable San Juan tickets to escape the "nonsense" they expected to result from the Live 8 music concert. They had intended to work half a day and depart on the 11 a.m. flight on July 3. But with a forecast for stormy weather, the pair changed their minds, he said. Still in uniform, Chicano went to the airline gate to cancel. "He went up there, the woman said, 'That's fine; we are overbooked by about 15 people.' We got vouchers." Lista said they had booked no second flight for that same day.

   The men described themselves as frequent traveling companions. "We were in the last year of our careers, and we have very good wives that let us take small trips," Lista said. "It's a bigger picture than what everybody is talking about," Chicano said. He said he was a "Silver Preferred" member of US Airways and a frequent vacationer with his family and friends, having bought more than 200 airline tickets in the last five years to places such as Cancun and the Dominican Republic. Chicano referred other questions to his lawyer, but neither he nor the lawyer later returned calls. Records show that through the city's special retirement program, Chicano was expected to collect an estimated $156,926 after his last day in April, and Lista was expected to receive an estimated $192,958 in May.

Source - Phila. Inquirer