What to Know
Bombshell abuse allegations pit customs officers against each other at Newark Airport
One officer claims there was a notorious conference table known as "the rape table" in middle of the room where senior officers went wild
The feds confirm an ongoing investigation and say U.S. Customs and Border Protection is cooperating fully with the probe
The head of the U.S Department of Homeland Security said Wednesday he has ordered Customs and Border Patrol, which he oversees, to provide assistance to four customs officers who told NBC 4 New York's I-Team they were physically and sexually abused by fellow officers in a pattern of extreme hazing at Newark Airport.
"The first thing I did when I heard about it was ordered CBP to take action up there, not assuming anyone’s guilt, just to take some action," Secretary John Kelly said during a hearing of the House Committee on Homeland Security. "Part of that action was to offer those who were reporting the fact they were hazed … to get them medical help or psychological help, counseling."
The development comes a day after the I-Team reported a fourth customs officer had come forward to corroborate allegations first exposed in an exclusive interview last month. In that first bombshell report, the officers detailed extreme hazing they say occurred in a secure area of Terminal C as far back as 2011.
CBP officer Vito Degironimo claimed he was pinned down on a so-called "rape table" and sexually abused.
"I mean his genitals are on my chest, he’s humping me, dry humping me with clothes on," he said.
Another officer, who did not want to be identified by name, said there was no conference table when he was assigned to the office, but he said he was sexually abused and, once, thought he was going to die.
"For some reason, somebody put a bag over my head and he started choking me," the officer said. "It was a plastic bag. At this point he’s not just suffocating me, but he’s choking me at the same time, so I was struggling. I tried to get it off and he held it tighter."
He said he was finally able to free himself and confronted the officer. "I said, ‘Why did you hurt me, you were trying to kill me, you were choking me.’"
He added that other officers in the room were laughing and he wondered, "Why would they come to this? Why are they trying to kill me?"
New Jersey attorney Patrick Metz, who is representing the officers as they seek to file a lawsuit over the alleged abuse, described the latest claim as sickening.
"Somebody put a bag over his head and choked him until he almost passed out. What other workplace does that go on in?" Metz said. "Everybody from the rank officers on up knew or apparently knew and just looked the other way."
At the hearing Wednesday, Kelly acknowledged that an investigation into the allegations is underway by the DHS inspector general. But that wasn’t enough for Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, a New Jersey Democrat who serves on the House Committee on Homeland Security. Coleman was among several members who sent a letter to Acting CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan demanding answers after the I-Team report in May. In that letter, she and the others set a May 26 deadline for a response. Weeks later, they haven't gotten one.
"To date we have not received any kind of response, even 'we’ve received it and we’ll get back to you,'" Coleman Watson said.
“I do think it’s really important to look at not only what’s happening in Newark but perhaps there could be a problem of this nature at other airports and it’s something that you all really do need to get on," she added.
In a prior statement, a CBP spokesman told the I-Team the agency is cooperating with the investigation by the Inspector General.