Originally created 04/15/04

Secret Service office worker charged in thefts of ground zero cars



NEW YORK -- A Secret Service office worker stole agency cars contaminated by dust from the World Trade Center collapse and gave them to his mother and daughter, prosecutors charged. The cars were supposed to have been scrapped.

William Bennette pleaded not guilty Tuesday to a charge of theft of government property, which carries a maximum 10-year sentence.

His attorney said Bennette's actions could be explained by psychological trauma related to the attack on the World Trade Center, where Bennette was working on Sept. 11, 2001.

"There's a personal side to this that will come out as the case moves forward," attorney Alan Lieberman said Wednesday. "It would be unfair if people jump to the conclusion that Mr. Bennette was simply exploiting the tragedy of 9/11."

Lieberman said Bennette was a 27-year veteran of the New York Police Department who had received a citation for his actions on Sept. 11. But suspicion began to focus on him last month when Secret Service agents conducting a vehicle inventory called body shops that were repairing agency cars, prosecutors said.

A body shop worker told a Secret Service agent he had two cars that had been given to him by Bennette. That prompted the agency to search Bennette's desk, where it found fake bills of sale for three other Secret Service cars.

Those three cars were found at the homes of Bennette and of his mother in North Carolina.

The cars were parked in the vicinity of the Secret Service's World Trade Center office and contaminated by dust from the collapse, much of which contained asbestos and other potentially harmful substances. Secret Service records listed the cars as disposed of by the agency.

Bennette admitted to investigators that he had falsified records and given the cars to his family, according to a complaint against him. He had been a Secret Service office support technician since 1999, the agency said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Sean Casey said the investigation was continuing but had no further comment.