The Maryland Transportation Authority Police have been providing armed escorts at taxpayer expense to sports celebrities and other VIPs when they board commercial flights at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.
The curb-to-plane escorts enable the celebrities to avoid long lines at security gates, allowing them to arrive as little as half an hour before a flight. The practice began shortly after Gary W. McLhinney was appointed chief of the Maryland Transportation Authority Police in 2003, according to past and current officers, though McLhinney asserted that he had merely "enhanced" a continuing program.
He said the six-member executive protection unit was designed not to cater to celebrities but "to avoid any disturbances in the airport."
McLhinney's predecessor, Larry Harmel, denied that transportation authority officers routinely provided escorts to celebrities -- as opposed to foreign dignitaries or high government officials and their families -- during his 6 1/2 -year tenure.
Officials from airports in such cities as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle, Houston, Washington and Orlando, Fla., said they know of no standing arrangements under which sports or entertainment celebrities receive an escort from an armed officer in the absence of a specific threat.
"We have priorities that need attending to that we would consider a little more important," said Pasquale DiFulco, spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates John F. Kennedy International, La Guardia and Newark Liberty International airports.
Typically, government officials supply their own armed security when they pass through airports. For example, the Secret Service protects members of President Bush's family when they pass through BWI. Baltimore police generally escort Mayor Martin O'Malley and his family.
The service at BWI also appears to duplicate some functions of the Maryland State Police, which has a special unit to guard the governor, lieutenant governor and other high-ranking state officials.
Several past and current members of the force called the VIP escort program at BWI a major distraction from their primary duty of providing security at the airport.
Charles "Rick" Spinks, who worked as a transportation authority police officer at BWI until late 2004, said he personally provided such escorts many times that year and in 2003. He said that in some cases, officers were pulled off their assigned posts and had to wait at gates for more than an hour for arriving celebrities.
One beneficiary of the escort service is former Baltimore Orioles star Cal Ripken, who has received such escorts at least 18 times since 2003, according to documents released by the transportation authority yesterday after a public records request by The Sun.
Ripken's spokesman, John Maroon, said that when the retired ballplayer is about to fly out of BWI, he or one of his associates routinely puts in a call to Lt. Col. Russell N. Shea Jr., the department's chief of operations.
A former Baltimore police officer, Shea moonlights doing security work for Ripken and his private firm, Ripken Baseball Inc., with McLhinney's consent.
Shea then orders an armed police officer to meet Ripken at the parking garage and escort him to the airline's gate. When Ripken returns, an officer frequently meets him at the gate and takes him to his SUV.
Another recipient of escorts, though far less frequently, is former Oriole Eddie Murray, a client of Shea's girlfriend, Diane B. Hock. She is founder and owner of Professionals on Request Ltd., an Ellicott City firm that represents athletes. Hock said there is no connection between the escorts and her representation of Murray, a member of the Hall of Fame.
Murray said the escorts were not provided at his initiative. "I'm not the kind of person who would request them," he said. Sometimes, he said, they showed up to meet him after he had told Hock of his plans to fly in or out of BWI.
Similarly, Maroon emphasized that Ripken has never demanded special treatment. In previous years, before McLhinney and Shea went to the police agency, Ripken would direct his escort requests to the airlines, Maroon said.
"This isn't something that Cal ever requested. It was something that was offered to him," Maroon said of Ripken, who writes a weekly freelance column for The Sun.
Shea said he "disagrees with that statement" but declined to elaborate.
It was unclear how comprehensive a picture of the escorts the documents reveal. Some other celebrities that McLhinney said had received police escorts at BWI -- including Ray Lewis, John Travolta, Bruce Springsteen and Rosie O'Donnell -- were not mentioned in the logs.
McLhinney said his police don't necessarily fill out forms on everybody who is given an escort. He said celebrities can receive escorts from his officers regardless of whether there is an actual threat. "We don't base our escorts on threats. We base it on the individual," the chief said.
One reason many airports hesitate to provide escorts to sports and entertainment celebrities -- as opposed to government officials or foreign dignitaries -- is that it would put officials in the position of deciding who qualifies as important enough.
Nancy Castles, a spokeswoman for Los Angeles International Airport, said celebrities "receive no special services from airport police whatsoever."
David Marks, who has operated a Beverly Hills, Calif.-based celebrity protection business for 30 years, said police agencies have no business competing with private companies that offer such services. In particular, he said, they are not qualified to decide who is deserving.
"Who's to say who make up the A list?" he said. "Today they're on the A list. Tomorrow they're on the B list. What about three years from now?"
McLhinney said the decision whether to provide an escort is based on whether a particular celebrity was "high-profile." He said he leaves such decisions to the commander at the airport, who reports to Shea.
"We would do [former Ravens player] Deion Sanders all the time ... because Deion's high-profile," he said. "A non-high-profile person wouldn't call us."
McLhinney said he has known about Ripken's escorts and his employment of Shea and sees no conflict of interest.
"The fact that he works for Cal doesn't concern me because it's off-duty," the chief said. McLhinney said he, too, did some work for Ripken before taking his current job.
Maroon said any work Shea does for Ripken is covered under a confidentiality agreement and his compensation from his secondary employment with Ripken is "minuscule."
"You couldn't buy a car with it," he said.