A Transportation Security Administration supervisor has been arrested for allegedly stealing thousands of dollars in cash from passengers going through an airport checkpoint.
As passengers -- mostly foreigners heading home -- came through the checkpoint at New Jersey's Newark Liberty International Airport, the supervisor and another TSA agent would subject them to secondary searches and allegedly take cash from their carry-on bags.
The supervisor, Michael Arato, 41, of Ewing, N.J., was changed with one count of accepting bribes, one count of conspiring to commit theft and three counts of theft by a government employee. The other TSA worker is now cooperating with authorities and has not been named in court records.
The pair allegedly targeted predominately non-English speaking victims, including women of Indian descent and nationality who were returning home after visiting the United States.
On a given shift, Arato would pocket approximately $400 to $700 from passengers, according to U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman.
"Arato literally made a game of stealing hundreds of dollars a day from individuals standing in the security lane," Fishman said in a statement. "That he targeted them based on their inability to speak English is especially offensive."
The TSA said that anytime it becomes aware of an employee who might be engaged in illegal activity, it works closely with other agencies to investigate.
"TSA will continue to move swiftly and decisively to terminate any employee who engages in illegal activity on the job," a TSA statement said. "The unfortunate choices of a couple individuals should in no way serve as a reflection on the more than 1,050 security officers at Newark Liberty who conduct themselves with professionalism and integrity and do an outstanding job every day keeping the traveling public safe."
According to court records, the TSA screener would often steal money from passenger's luggage or purses and then allegedly give half to his supervisor, Arato, who would not mention the theft. Arato also allegedly stole money himself, occasionally giving some back the co-schemer.
One victim allegedly had $5,000 in cash that she was taking to India for a relative, taken out of her handbag during a search.
The two TSA employees would hide the cash they allegedly stole in X-ray machine drawers, explosive detection machines and the lost and found until it was safe to remove.
The men often targeted an Air India flight that left Newark's Terminal B at 6:20 p.m.
Starting in August 2009, the TSA and police for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the airport, "received numerous complaints" from passengers on that Air India flight that "money and other valuables in passengers' carry-on baggage were missing after their baggage was hand searched by TSA employees at the B-3 checkpoint," according to court records.
In response, the Port Authority and Department of Homeland Security's inspector general's office launched an investigation. The TSA agent who is now cooperating was caught on video cameras stealing. Since Sept. 13, he has assisted the investigators in building a case against Arato.
In six work days in September and two days in October, Arato allegedly accepted $3,100 in bribes that the co-schemer gave him as part of a sting set up by the police. Video recordings show him accepting money on numerous occasions.
Arato's lawyer, public defender John Yauch did not immediately return phone calls and emails to his office.
According to court records, on another occasion, Arato allegedly accepted $500 in cash that came out of an envelope with $1,000 in it at the lost and found office. Whenever the TSA agents allegedly stole a large envelope with cash, they would put it in lost and found in case the passenger came back seeking it. Once they left the airport without noticing the envelope missing, Arato and the co-schemer would go to lost and found and divvy up the cash.
When such a handoff occurred on Sept. 29 as part of the sting, Arato allegedly took the money and then "gave the middle finger to a visible security camera in the" office, according to court records.
During one recorded conversation, the two TSA agents discussed an on-going competition between them that involved stealing from passengers in the presence of their TSA supervision.
"Arato jokes that he wanted to steal in the presence of every one of his supervisors," according to court records.
Another time, the pair discussed how they did not feel bad stealing from foreign passengers who were leaving the country with "our money."
If he's found guilty, Arato faces up to five years in prison and a fine of $250,000 on the charge of conspiring to commit theft and up to one year in prison and a fine of $100,000 on each of the three counts of theft by an employee of the government.