What to Know
- Bombshell hazing 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
Allegations of extreme hazing by veteran U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers at Newark Airport have triggered a formal inquiry by members of the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security.
The inquiry stems from a bombshell report last week by NBC 4 New York's I-Team that exposed allegations of sexually abusive hazing by veteran officers at the New Jersey hub, including the pinning down of victims to a "rape table."
Three Democratic members of the committee -- Rep. Bennie Thompson, Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman and Rep. Donald Payne, Jr. -- have requested detailed information from CBP about the allegations.
“We were very disturbed to learn of the troubling allegations of improper conduct and possibly unlawful actions by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Officers at Newark Liberty International Airport," the representatives wrote in the letter to Acting CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan. "There is no place for this type of conduct at CBP or anywhere else in the Department of Homeland Security."
“Furthermore, these allegations raise serious questions about whether similar conduct is could be occurring elsewhere within CBP or the Department,” the letter continued. "It is imperative the men and women who help keep our country secure can do their jobs safely and with dignity and that they are held to the highest legal, ethical and professional standards."
The letter requests information by May 26 about what CBP supervisors in Newark and Washington knew about the alleged hazing and what steps were taken to address it. The letter also asks about plans to prevent similar issues.
“Anybody who has created or supported or allowed this corrosive behavior to take place needs to face the consequences,” Watson Coleman told NBC 4 New York, adding that she may call for congressional hearings.
The Department of Homeland Security is already investigating the allegations by three former members of CPB’s Passenger Enforcement Roving Team at the airport. CBP has confirmed the existence of the investigation and officials say the department is cooperating fully with the investigation.
The officers say the abuse has been happening for years in a secure room in Terminal C where security cameras are monitored. A conference table in the room, they say, is central to the hazing rituals.
"They call this table itself the 'rape table,'" said CBP officer Vito Degironimo said. He said that while clothing was never removed, the ritual involved the grinding of genital areas on victims.
"Once the lights go out, they grab you up 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," he said, describing it as sexual attack. "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," he added. "This is complete assault."
CBP officer Dan Arencibia told NBC 4 New York says he narrowly escaped becoming a sex crime victim, but that he was haunted by a song from the MTV series "Jackass" that played in the room during the hazing ritual.
"It’s called the 'Party Boy song.' It’s something they played in the past and it becomes their theme for the event," Arencibia said, adding that he documented the alleged abuse. "They’re monsters in a sense. They know that we can’t do anything about this."
CBP officer Diana Cifuentes said she escaped the "rape table" only to suffer other terrors from her fellow armed officers.
"There was a back and forth between another officer and myself," she said. "He said, 'You deserve to be put on the rape table.' And that’s when he started chasing me. … [Eventually] I was held down by another officer and one additional officer taped me with green customs tape to the chair."
The harassment, Cifuentes claims, escalated with one officer pulling his gun on her in the office.
"I was very afraid for my life," she said. "I took a deep breath and kept on typing like nothing was happening. I know that if I reacted either he was going to pull the trigger or I was going to draw the weapon myself and shoot him."
“I’m afraid for my life, my safety,” she said of the alleged ongoing abuse. "This is terrorizing. How is it that officers believe they’re free to do whatever they want to do?”
All three officers said they were originally too intimidated to make official complaints. Degironimo said he did end up filing an internal complaint after months of abuse. Eventually, all three officers went to an attorney, seeking help to file a lawsuit.
"This was armed hazing. It’s an accident waiting to happen," said their attorney, Patrick Metz. "These are armed federal officers assaulting other armed federal officers. It’s gang assault."
The three officers would probably be front and center should any congressional hearings be called. They have already spoken with federal investigators and have been moved out of Newark for their safety.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection told NBC 4 New York an investigation into the hazing allegations is ongoing.
"We do not tolerate corruption or abuse within our ranks, and we cooperate fully with all criminal or administrative investigations of alleged misconduct by any of our personnel, whether it occurs on or off duty," CBP said.