Thursday, May 12, 2011

To Serve, to Protect Steal

Spencer Wilking

If TSA workers steal from the people they are supposed to be protecting, how can they be trusted to keep the nation safe from terrorism

The eBay seller known as "Alirla" sold high-priced electronics at rock bottom prices, shipping laptops, digital cameras and GPS units to eager buyers all over the world. Alirla's eBay page was filled with positive comments remarking on the great deals to be had; the few blemishes were minor: "awesome little camcorder, but missing the instructions" or "Item as described, but the video out cable was missing."

The bargain shopping came to an end when "Alirla" was revealed to be Pythias Brown, a 49-year-old TSA screener at Newark Liberty International Airport responsible for the largest one-man theft ring in the short history of the Transportation Security Administration.

For over a year, Brown used his position as a TSA screener to pilfer the bags of airline passengers at will, stealing an estimated $400,000 in goods, according to a federal court complaint. Brown's six-figure eBay fencing operation unraveled when a CNN cameraman discovered his Sony video camera missing from his luggage. The cameraman logged onto eBay and found his camera listed for sale by Brown's Alirla eBay profile. The ensuing investigation resulted in a raid of Brown's Maplewood, N.J., home, where authorities found 66 cameras, 31 laptop computers and other electronics and jewelry with a total value of more than $200,000. In July 2009, Brown was sentenced to three years in federal prison.

According to Transportation Security Administration records, press reports and court documents, Brown is one of approximately 500 TSA officers who've been fired or suspended for stealing from passenger luggage since the agency's creation in November 2001 in response to the attacks on 9/11. Theft among TSA officers is a national problem, but New York City's area airports—John F. Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark Liberty—supply some of the most egregious and regular occurrences of theft committed by the same federal officers assigned to protect airliners.

Despite the TSA implementing new security measures after the Pythias Brown case, such as more cameras pointed at employees and a requirement that all TSA officers carry personal items in transparent bags, the three major New York City airports are still hampered by screener theft. In January, two TSA officers were arrested for stealing $40,000 in cash from a checked bag at JFK. Last fall, an investigation by the Port Authority police found that two TSA screeners at Newark airport had been targeting international passengers and stealing cash from bags passing through their screening station for more than a year. The U.S. district attorney's office added bribery charges when it was found that one of the men was a TSA supervisor receiving kickback payments for ignoring thefts during his shift.

And while the theft trend doesn't sum up the thousands of TSA workers at New York City airports who've kept the nation's airlines safe from terrorist attack, it does reveal a mismanaged government agency that struggles with accountability, poor workplace conditions and high employee turnover, according to government reports, court documents and interviews with police, government officials and former TSA workers.

Many authorities see the theft problem as an issue of national security. "You should not have bad apples performing these duties," Steve Lord, a director for the Government Accountability Office, says. "That's bad for business."

"It's a position of public trust," says TSA spokesperson Ann Davis, who thinks those "bad apples" are inevitable in the TSA. "We have over 50,000 officers, so whenever you have a work force of that size, you're going to have some bad apples."

Screener theft is not a new issue for the TSA. Several years prior to Brown's nearly half-a-million dollar crime spree, a series of wellpublicized incidents in 2003 and 2004 prompted the department of Homeland Security's Inspector General to issue a report examining the problem of baggage theft by TSA screeners. However, the alarm raised by Homeland Security's Inspector General did not deter new thefts at New York City airports. In late 2005, a New York City firefighter en route to Florida to assist with Hurricane Wilma relief in 2005 had his wallet stolen by TSA officers at LaGuardia, who then charged thousands of dollars on his personal credit card. And at JFK, a TSA officer stole $80,000 in cash from a checked suitcase, which he then used to pay off a gambling debt.

Many government and TSA officials say that while theft is a violation of the public trust, it's a problem of the past and that the percentage of screeners who've engaged in theft is remarkably low.
In 2006, TSA Acting Assistant Administrator Charlotte Bryan told Congress that, between 2002 and 2006, only 87 screeners had been fired for stealing. TSA figures tell a different and often conflicting story, with 310 screeners fired for theft between 2002 and 2008, more than 44 per year. At other times in 2008, TSA spokespeople said that 465 TSA officers had been dismissed for theft in the previous five years. Recently, the TSA said that only 12 officers had been fired for theft during a three-year span from 2008 to 2011. However, an email written by a TSA official in May 2009 states that 27 agents were fired in 2008 alone and that 57 more were fired but there was "no effective date entered in TSA's database."

According to this same faulty database, 12 TSA officers have been fired for theft at Newark airport, 22 at JFK airport and 13 at LaGuardia airport since 2002. (The TSA admits that these numbers aren't 100-percent accurate due to "limited data" from 2002.) Taking into account the TSA's 2008 figure of 465 fired officers with the theft numbers that have occurred since, as illustrated by TSA records, press reports and court documents, the total number of officers fired for theft at airports nationwide is approximately 500.

The TSA says the discrepancy in numbers is due to the size of their agency and the difficulty in keeping track of screener theft across every airport. But even TSA spokespeople express frustration in getting numbers from their bosses at headquarters. "Data is the bane of my existence at this agency," says Ann Davis, TSA spokesperson. "It can be like pulling teeth."

Brown says he stole two to three items a week from the bags of airline passengers, according to investigators. "I'm ashamed of what I've done," Brown said at his court sentencing. Thom Stukas, an awardwinning cinematographer, was working on a project for HBO when Brown stole $47,900 worth of camera equipment from his checked baggage in September 2008.

"I pulled it off the belt, and it was empty," says Stukas, recounting the moment at baggage claim when he realized something was wrong. "It was just a camera bag, no lenses, no camera, no nothing."
Stukas eventually had his gear returned to him. Unfortunately, since federal investigators held it as evidence for about a year while the case against Brown proceeded, it was not the adult Christmas morning Stukas has been expecting. "By the time I got the camera back, it was obsolete," says Stukas, who worries about his equipment being pinched every time he flies. "When you hand this stuff off, you gotta wonder whether it's going to come out on the other side."

Apparently, the Pythias Brown bust didn't do much to deter other TSA thieves, since some of the most shameless rip-offs to date were uncovered recently at Newark and JFK airports. LaGuardia seems to be the only New York City area airport in the last two years without one of their TSA agents being arrested for theft in a big, publicized incident.

At JFK, Delta Air Lines officials became alarmed after an increased number of passengers reported missing items from their bags. Airport police launched a yearlong investigation and, in July 2009, they arrested TSA screener Brian Burton and an airline baggage handler he had partnered with. They were caught stealing electronics from a "seeded" bag during an arranged sting operation.

The U.S. Attorney's office in New Jersey, which only prosecutes handselected theft cases as federal, says they prosecuted four TSA screeners arrested at Newark airport in 2010. In January 2010, a TSA officer was arrested for stealing laptops from the lost and found center she was supposed to be supervising, and then altering claim information in an attempt to cover up the thefts. A month later, a veteran TSA officer, employed as a screener since 2002, was caught stealing $495 in cash from a woman's wheelchair as she passed through security. Then last fall, two TSA screeners at Newark Airport, one of whom was a supervisor, were arrested for treating the bags of passengers like their personal ATMs during a yearlong spree.

Two TSA screeners— Persad Coumar, 44, and Davon Webb, 30— were both on duty one evening when they spied a checked bag filled with cash through the X-ray machine in the belt area of American Airlines, according to a criminal complaint filed by the Queens County district attorney. Needing a more discreet place to commit their crime, the bag (containing about $170,000) was marked with tape by Webb and sent on its way. The security belt brought the marked bag to a luggage holding area, its last stop before being loaded onto the plane by airline baggage handlers. Not having access to this area, Coumar snatched someone else's identification card and used it to unlock the door. Among all the rows of luggage, Coumar was able to spot the specially marked one containing the cash. He emptied a portion of the money into a box and took it into a bathroom where he met up with Webb. From there, the two of them crammed $40,000 in cash into the pockets and inside their TSA uniforms and walked out of the airport.
Working off a tip, investigators raided the homes of the two men and recovered the stolen money in full except for a missing $20 bill, which Coumar told police he used to purchase food. Michael Fedorko, the Port Authority Police Superintendent, and top police official overseeing Newark, LaGuardia and JFK airports, called the incident a "coordinated criminal effort" and congratulated his officers on declaring "checkmate on these checkers."

A few months prior, another duo targeting cash was caught operating at a security checkpoint at Newark airport's terminal B. Pleading guilty in February in federal court, two TSA agents admitted that they stole over $30,000 from passengers passing through their screening station between September 2009 and October 2010.

By September 2009, TSA screener Al Raimi and his supervisor Michael Arato had found their cash cow, an Air India flight that left daily at 6:20 p.m. That Air India flight was filled with non-English speaking, international passengers who would be halfway across the world before discovering their travel cash looted. Raimi did much of the dirty work, stealing cash from passengers while providing Arato half of the amount he fleeced during each shift. Investigators say this was a kickback for not reporting his crime. Each shift, Raimi averaged a take of about $400 to $700, with approximately $200 to $400 going to Arato as a bribe, according to a criminal complaint filed by the U.S. Attorney's office. Arato would also swipe an additional $400 to $700 on his own during each shift, sometimes sharing with Raimi.

"Arato literally made a game of stealing hundreds of dollars a day from individuals standing in the security lane," U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman said. "That he targeted them based on their inability to speak English is especially offensive."

The yearlong payday eventually came to an end after enough passengers overcame language difficulties and other international barriers to complain about their missing money. In late August 2010, Raimi was seen on video surveillance stealing about $5,000 from a passenger's handbag while performing a secondary search at a screening table. On the video, Arato is seen approaching the table and talking to the woman being searched, providing enough of a distraction for Raimi to remove the cash from her handbag. After being confronted by airport police, Raimi agreed to cooperate with their continuing investigation into the freefor-all at terminal B. Investigators watched for another month, with Raimi wearing a police wire, as he and Arato went about pocketing their illicit shift bonus.

"If I find an envelope, I'm taking it," Arato was overheard saying to Raimi during one shift, apparently frustrated over the lack of cash-carrying victims. "I swear to my kids." During another conversation taped by police, Arato expresses his lack of remorse when it comes to stealing from international passengers: "These motherfuckers… leaving this country with our money, you know... our fucking money." Arato and Raimi have both pleaded guilty in federal court and will be sentenced this spring. Raimi faces up to 10 years for his crime, with Arato looking at a maximum of 15 years due to the additional bribery charges.

In a February letter to the Department of Homeland Security's Inspector General, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) cites the Arato-Raimi case as one of the reasons why an outside investigation into TSA operations at Newark airport is needed. "The recent problems at Newark demonstrate that much more needs to be done and that is why I am taking action," Sen. Lautenberg says. Since receiving the letter, the inspector general's office is heeding the senator's concerns and moving forward with an investigation of TSA at Newark airport, according to a spokesperson for Sen. Lautenberg.

As one of America's first lines of defense against terrorist attack, the frequency of these thefts represents a major security risk at New York City airports. "He abused the public trust," Federal judge Peter G. Sheridan said while sentencing Pythias Brown to three years in prison. "It's very important public work to be done, one with integrity and honesty, and Mr. Brown violated those principles, so he needs to be punished for that."

Some airline representatives say theft grew exponentially with the creation of the TSA and their new powers to open and check luggage as they pleased. "When the TSA took over, we saw a dramatic spike in the increase of pilfering claims," says Scott Mueller, a baggage manager at Midwest Airlines for almost 20 years.

In response to the rising number of lost goods, and urgings from the airlines, the TSA developed a claim system where they would reimburse passengers for missing possessions. When a traveler realizes something is missing, he can file a claim on the TSA website. The TSA then opens
an investigation, and if they find one of their officers at fault, they pay for the missing or damaged item. Since the TSA was established in 2002 through July 2008, the TSA has received over 100,000 claims for missing or damaged goods. More than half of those claims have resulted in a pay out, with almost $17 million going to passengers, according to available data from the TSA.

TSA officers aren't the only ones stealing at airports. Baggage handlers, airport employees and even other passengers have been arrested for theft. "Once the passenger checks that bag in, it's really open season," says a police official at JFK airport. Screeners and baggage handlers will even work together to steal from passengers. Craig Hannan, a screener at Florida's Jacksonville airport arrested in December of 2007, picked out bags with valuables worth stealing for cothieves working as baggage handlers, who would remove the items as they made their way down to the tarmac.

TSA spokesperson Ann Davis, however, says that travelers are too quick in assuming that a missing item was the work of TSA thievery. "I find it fascinating that every time something goes missing from someone's luggage it's TSA's fault," Davis says. "That's not to say we haven't fired people."

She says that the standardized note that the TSA place in your bag after a search is one indictor used to evaluate theft claims. "One of the passengers might say 'TSA stole my CD player,'" says Davis. "We'll say, 'Well was there a note in your bag?' If they say, 'No,' then TSA didn't physically search your bag." Davis did not elaborate on a TSA screener with criminal intent who might forgo the note-leaving protocol. For instance, a Spanish tourist flying from Orlando to LaGuardia airport in January 2010 was surprised to open up his bag and find a black security wand emblazoned with a TSA logo but no sign of his $2,500 laptop or a TSA inspection notice, according to a police report filed with the Orlando Police Department.

In the first weeks after terrorists flew hijacked passenger planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon,

Congress drafted legislation to make sure that it would never happen again. Rather than relying on private companies to screen passengers, the government would take on the critical job itself. The Aviation and Transportation Security Act, passed Nov. 19, 2001, created a brand-new federal agency, the Transportation Security Administration, to perform this task.

"We had a mandate to screen 100 percent of passengers," says Ann Davis. "We had to hire 45,000 people very quickly and train them to use screening technology." TSA screeners had the sweeping responsibility of checking every piece of carry-on and checked baggage for weapons or explosives, and the new power to open any bag that appeared suspicious. Luggage locks would be cut off if they couldn't be opened by a baggage skeleton key carried by TSA screeners.

From the outset, the challenge of ramping up a nationwide airline security regime proved difficult. Hiring qualified screeners took longer than anticipated, and the TSA consistently lagged behind recommended staffing levels of 80,000 employees.
In 2011, with the TSA handling security at over 450 airports with about 48,000 officers, the biggest problem the agency faces is keeping these employees. "We have had historically very high attrition rates amongst the vast majority of our workforce," David Tumblin, TSA director of workplace metrics, said at a panel discussion on turnover among federal agencies held last November.

In years past, almost a quarter of all TSA employees would leave the agency each year. That number has since improved with an attrition rate of 12.7 percent in 2009, according to personnel data maintained by the U.S. government. The high turnover rate is due to poor morale brought on by a work environment that offers little in the way of incentive and fair treatment, say former TSA employees and other government officials. The Partnership for Public Service used survey data provided by federal employees to rank the TSA 220th out of 224 federal agencies in its "2010 Best Places to Work" list.

"The low morale at TSA is legendary," says Ron Moore, a former TSA agent at Baltimore-Washington International Airport from 2002 to 2007. "Good people are either planning on leaving or wishing they could leave." Moore says he resigned after repeated attempts by TSA officials to have him fired following the publication of two op-ed columns he wrote for the Washington Post criticizing TSA workplace policies. "Over time the sense that you're doing something noble, that you're a part of a professional service is chipped away."

The starting salary for a TSA screener is $23,000, low compared to other federal agencies, and once hired, many TSA workers believe their hard work goes unrewarded. According to a survey conducted in 2008 by the Department of Homeland Security, less than a quarter of TSA workers said they thought promotions or pay raises were merit based.

"When you have a workplace where your relationship with management is more important than your quality of work or your experience, its pretty easy to imagine these situations where a supervisor has a crew who steals money," Moore says.

Injury is a regular concern facing TSA officers. In addition to hernias and back pain caused by moving heavy luggage, TSA workers often deal with an array of injuries from smaller repetitive tasks. Stacking and restacking thousands of gray buckets a day or the stress placed on one's wrist from hours of taking and returning identification cards leads to regular joint pain. The TSA no longer has the highest rate of injury among federal agencies, a distinction they held in 2003 with an injury rate of nearly 20 percent, but they're still near the top with 4,093 workers filing for workers compensation in 2008, according to figures from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Until recently, TSA workers weren't allowed to unionize with collective bargaining powers. Last November, the Federal Labor Relations Authority ruled that TSA workers could select an official union to represent them and in February, chief TSA Administrator John Pistole said that they would have the option of collective bargaining. Now two unions— the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Treasury.

Employees Union—are vying to represent them. TSA workers are currently voting on which union will have that honor and whether they want to exercise collective bargaining rights.

While the poor work conditions of TSA screeners is well documented in inspector general reports from the Department of Homeland Security, one issue not tackled in those reports is the connection between unhappy workers and theft. Critics say that it's only expected that an underpaid, disgruntled worker is more likely to steal. "You're going to get a lack of commitment on part of the workforce to their jobs," says Rep. Nita Lowey.

Or in the words of a police official at JFK airport: "If they have criminal intent, they're not fulfilling their intent of looking at their magnetometer," referring to the screening stations used by TSA officers.
The TSA says theft is minimal and not reflective of the TSA workforce as a whole. "Unfortunately every industry grapples with theft and while we do have a few bad eggs, the percentage is very low across the country for the number of people who've been fired for theft," says a TSA official.

While every industry deals with theft, those in government overseeing the TSA say that not every industry is a federal agency responsible for keeping the airlines and public safe. "No one who has experienced this country's recent history should need reminding of what is at stake," U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman says. "Citizens and guests of our country should not have to worry about being victimized by those whose job it is to protect them."

Thom Stukas, the cameraman who had $50,000 worth of equipment stolen by Pythias Brown under the guise of screening his luggage for bombs, drugs and weapons, sees a clear connection between that act and national security: "What's to stop them from taking a $100,000 bribe from somebody and putting something in the bag instead of taking something out? What's stopping them from putting a fucking bomb in there?"

1 comment: