The recent arrest of three Transportation Security Administration officers reveals critical safety vulnerabilities at America’s airports, experts told The Post.
TSA officers Elizabeth Fuster, Labarrius Williams and Josue Gonzalez are facing felony charges of organized scheme to defraud following Thursday’s bust at Miami International Airport.
Surveillance video from checkpoint E caught the trio conspiring to “distract passengers as they were being screened,” to steal cash from bags, according to arrest affidavits obtained by The Post.
Fuster, 22, and Gonzalez, 20, confessed to “numerous thefts” from travelers, admitting to stealing an average of $1,000 daily while working together. Williams refused to speak to investigators, Miami-Dade police said.
In one instance, footage showed Williams and Gonzalez snatching $600 from a passenger’s wallet during the screening process, affidavits show.
TSA removed the accused officers from screening duties, but the alleged conspiracy exposes cracks in the last line of defense at more than 440 airports monitored by the federal agency, public safety experts said.
“While these travelers unfortunately had their valuables stolen, these are same screeners that are stopping people getting guns or possibly a dirty nuke onto a plane,” said Bill Stanton, a security consultant and former NYPD officer.
He criticized the “minimal” credentials required for transportation security officers, including a high-school diploma or one year of full-time experience as an X-ray technician, aviation screener or security industry professional.
“Essentially, the same qualifications of being employed as a security guard at a big-box store,” Stanton told The Post. “So, what would get you employed at a big-box store literally lets you become the last gatekeeper from stopping a potential terrorist from getting on a plane. We need to understand that.”
TSA security officers, whose part-time salaries start at $37,696, must be US citizens or nationals and pass a drug screening, medical evaluation and background check.
TSA security officers are held to the “highest professional and ethical standards,” agency officials told The Post in a statement Tuesday.
“We actively and aggressively investigated these allegations of misconduct and presented our findings to Miami-Dade Police Department, and are working closely with them,” TSA’s statement added of the recent charges. “Any employee who fails to meet our fundamental ethical standards is held accountable.”
TSA officers have been involved in high-profile arrests in recent years, including Michael Williams, who attempted to smuggle methamphetamine through Los Angeles International Airport for $8,000, federal authorities said last March.
In 2012, a former TSA security officer who spent over two years in prison for stealing more than $800,000 of items from passengers at New Jersey’s Newark Liberty International Airport, revealed the job made it “very convenient” to steal.
“It was very commonplace, very,” Pythias Brown told ABC News, adding his four-year spree only ended when a camera he pilfered was spotted on eBay.
“It was so easy,” Brown said. “I walked right out of the checkpoint with a Nintendo Wii in my hand. Nobody said a word.”
Brown, 61, of Dayton, New Jersey, declined to comment when reached by The Post Tuesday.
TSA has “no tolerance” for workplace misconduct and the arrests of employees are a “rare” occurrence, according to the federal agency created in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks.
TSA officials declined to provide data regarding recent employee arrests. A Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request has not been returned.
The agency, which employs more than 60,000 workers, screens roughly 2.2 million passengers per day nationwide. Some 20% of employees are active-duty military personnel or veterans, according to its website.
“TSA performs lawful screenings of airline travelers as authorized by the Aviation Security and Transportation Act,” the statement concluded. “We recommend ensuring pockets are empty and place any valuable items such as currency, wallets, cellphones, jewelry to name a few in carry-on bags.”
The alleged theft ring at Miami International Airport, which does not employ private security screeners, came amid what’s expected to be a record-setting year for guns seized at terminal checkpoints.
TSA screeners recovered 3,251 firearms at airport security checkpoints during the first half of this year – or an average of 18 per day, officials announced Monday.
That’s up 6% from 3,053 guns seized during the same span last year and the agency expects to surpass the record 6,542 firearms recovered in 2022, TSA officials said.
But an exponential increase in training and compensation offered by the TSA would dramatically shore up airport security even further, according to Stanton, who wrote “Prepared Not Scared: Your Go-To Guide For Staying Safe In An Unsafe World” in 2019.
“The American traveler, in my opinion, travels in ignorant bliss,” he said. “This is the tip of the iceberg of a much larger problem where questions should be asked.”
TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein disputed claims Wednesday that the nation’s airports had security gaps.
“We’re always concerned with insider threats,” Farbstein told The Post. “TSA has multiple layers of security and a checkpoint is just one of those multiple layers.”
Daniel Karon, a Cleveland-based attorney who has led antitrust and consumer-fraud class-action cases, said he sees a potential civil filing against the TSA alleging negligence during airport searches.
“I see the possibility of a class-action lawsuit for injunctive relief requiring more rigorous training processes and more transparency to keep people safe,” Karon told The Post.
“I’d be a little concerned,” he said. “I’d like there to be a little more accountability or openness in terms of the qualifications of these folks so I know who is looking at my stuff … Just because they’re wearing a blue shirt and a badge doesn’t mean everything’s on the level.”