By Dave Warner
PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - The federal drug raid on a Boeing plant that makes key U.S. military aircraft was the culmination of four years of stealth operations as agents infiltrated the factory and found workers to cooperate in undercover deals, authorities said on Friday.
More than three dozen people, all but one of them current or former Boeing employees, were charged with illegally dealing in prescription painkillers and anti-anxiety drugs after the arrests on Thursday at the factory in Ridley Park, Pennsylvania.
The federal investigation took four years -- following a year-long internal probe by Boeing itself -- to be thorough, said Patricia Hartman, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's office.
"It took time to infiltrate," Hartman said. "We wanted to make sure that we cleaned up the place as much as possible."
FBI agents used Boeing employees to cooperate in the probe, and those charged were accused of either selling drugs to FBI cooperators or buying placebo drugs from them, officials said.
Hartman declined to provide any further details of the undercover operations at the 6,000-employee plant,
The accused, many of whom were led from the plant in handcuffs, were accused of dealing the powerful painkiller Oxycontin as well as fentanyl, which is sold in loznge form as Actiq, being dealt at the plant, officials said.
They also were allegedly trading in buprenorphine, which is sold as Suboxone and prescribed to treat addiction to certain narcotics, and the anti-anxiety drug alprazolam, sold as Xanax, they said.
Federal law enforcement authorities said the alleged dealers were not part of an organized network but individuals illegally peddling drugs for personal use.
If convicted, those charged with distribution face possible sentences of 10 to 260 years in prison and millions of dollars in fines, the U.S. Attorney's office said.
The plant is located in an industrial suburb a few miles west of the Philadelphia International Airport.
Federal authorities said the area was not unusually prone to the illegal trade of prescription drugs.
"It's a problem that is everywhere," said Rusty Payne, spokesman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in Washington.
"This is something that touches every demographic and geographic area of the country," he said. He noted that Florida, in particular, is a hot spot of such illegal drug activity.
Federal authorities and Boeing emphasized on Thursday that there was no evidence that the integrity of work on any aircraft had been compromised.
Boeing, which cooperated with the investigation, said none of the employees under suspicion during the four-year probe were allowed in any position to compromise the safety or quality of the aircraft.
The Ridley Park plant makes the pioneering V-22 Osprey aircraft, which lifts vertically like a helicopter but flies like a fixed-wing plane with more speed and range, and the heavy-duty H-47 Chinook helicopters.
Both the Osprey and Chinook are standard U.S. military aircraft used in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The case began to unfold in May 2006 when some Boeing employees contacted an internal company ethics hotline saying they were concerned about illegal drug activity at the plant.
The company launched its own investigation and in August 2007 turned the case over to federal law-enforcement officials.
(Writing by Ellen Wulfhorst, Editing by Greg McCune)