Panama City- The Bay County Sheriff's Office has arrested 11 men and are looking for 5 more, who were working at the boom staging area at the Panama City Marina. The majority of them were illegal immigrants. Sheriff's Office investigators organized the raid after receiving community tips.
Deputies arrived at the Panama City Marina around 2pm Wednesday, and immediately began checking the identity papers of the staging area workers. They reviewed the documents of as many as 70-of the workers, arresting a number of them. "This is a very difficult task, doing this. But right now we have a total of 12 people in custody. Ten of those are for criminal use of personal identification, 2 are for other charges...1 of those is a local warrant on a different charge. We have 5 people that we are currently looking for and trying to locate. We had illegal workers here with stolen social security numbers, we arrested them," said Bay County Sheriff Frank McKeithan.
This comes as a shock to many who were told by BP officials that they'd be hiring local workers for these jobs. According to McKeithan, BP hired Panama City based SWS First Response to handle the oil spill response for this area. SWS sub-contracted the work to 2 other companies, Lewis and CCI. Apparently those companies hired the workers. Some were bussed-in from New York and North Carolina. "The contractors who hired these people, hopefully someone can deal with that from a different agency, we can't or we would," said McKeithan.
NewsChannel 7 tried to talk with a couple of SWS officials who were on site, but they refused to speak with us. Earlier this week BP's Bay County Representative Vani Rao told us 75% of the staging area workers were locals, and by the end of next week, that number would be 100%. Wednesday afternoon she defined locals as being from Florida. By Wednesday night she was trying to put a positive face on the situation. "When we received the call we got down to the staging area immediately. So we are very concerned about what is going on and we are cooperating fully with Sheriff McKeithan and we are optimistic that whatever issues come up today, when the investigation is complete, that we are going to address completely," said Rao.
BP has emphasized the importance of involving local workers since the oil spill response effort began. But today's arrests confirmed what some locals had feared. "With what's going on right now and with so many local people out of work you know, it doesn't sit well with local people that number one illegal immigrants are here and number two that they are here taking jobs someone else could take.
A twelfth man, Sean Jones from Panama City, was also arrested this afternoon for an outstanding warrant.