WASHINGTON - Federal prosecutors on Thursday charged three dozen current and former employees of a Boeing plant that manufactures military aircraft with buying or selling prescription drugs abused at the site.
FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration agents raided the Ridley Park, Pennsylvania plant earlier following a four-year, undercover operation to curtail drug abuse at the plant, which manufactures CH-47 Chinook helicopters and V-22 Osprey helicopter-airplane hybrids used by the military.
Of those charged, 36 were current or former Boeing employees, while another was neither, prosecutors said.
The US Department of Justice said 23 of the accused were indicted on charges of illegally distributing prescription drugs, including painkillers fentanyl (Actiq) and oxycodone (Oxycontin); anti-anxiety medication alprazolam (Xanax); and buprenorphine (Suboxone), an opioid used to treat addiction.
Maximum penalties varied greatly for those workers, depending on the severity of the charges, ranging from 10 years in prison and a $500,000 fine to 220 years in prison and an $11 million fine for Joseph Salvato, who charged with nine counts of distributing oxycodone and two counts for fentanyl.
Another 14 defendants were charged with attempted possession of the drugs being sold by their co-workers, a misdemeanor charge.
That group of employees faces up to a year in prison for each count.
Each worker was said to have either sold a controlled substance to an FBI cooperator or bought a placebo they believed was a controlled substance from an FBI cooperator.
"This investigation and prosecution focused not only on the sellers, but also on the users because of the critical role that these employees play in manufacturing military aircraft," said US Attorney Zane Memeger.
"Prescription drug abuse has been on the rise in our community, and this is just one example of how pervasive the problem is."
Boeing launched an internal investigation into the suspicious activity in May 2006 after receiving reports about possible drug activity at the plant, company spokesman Damien Mills said.
The firm then handed information over to the authorities, including names of suspects, in 2007. And authorities began their investigation in August of that year.
"The close cooperation with federal agencies allowed Boeing to implement steps throughout the investigation to ensure that the employees under suspicion were not in a position to compromise the safety of their teammates or the quality of the products being delivered," Mills told AFP.
"Not only were we able to take steps to reduce the impact of suspected employees, but we have a very robust quality control system... to help ensure that the products being produced by Boeing during that period fully lived up to the expectations" of the company's clients, he added.