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Airport security officer granted bail in thefts

By the CNN Wire Staff
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TSA officer arrested at Newark
  • TSA official granted bail during court hearing
  • Complaint: Michael Arato is seen stealing from passengers on surveillance video
  • He allegedly targeted non-English-speaking women

New York (CNN) -- An airport security supervisor accused of stealing from passengers and accepting stolen money was granted $100,000 bail Wednesday by a U.S. magistrate judge in federal court in Newark, New Jersey.

Michael Arato, 41, is seen on surveillance video at Newark Liberty International Airport, according to a federal criminal complaint. The video has not been released.

Arato, of Ewing, New Jersey, is charged with one count of accepting bribes, one count of conspiring to commit theft and three counts of theft by a government employee. He was brought into court handcuffed and with shackles on his feet.

Arato was the supervisory transportation security officer for the Transportation Security Administration at Terminal B of the airport, and worked with a colleague to steal from passengers, according to the complaint. He and the colleague -- who has been cooperating with authorities -- frequently worked together at "the B-3 checkpoint." The checkpoint is typically the security checkpoint for international airlines including AirIndia, the complaint said.

Beginning in August 2009, TSA and the Port Authority Police Department of New York and New Jersey "received numerous complaints from passengers scheduled to depart the airport on the 6:20 p.m. AirIndia 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," the complaint said.

The complaining passengers were predominantly non-English-speaking women of Indian descent and nationality who were returning to India after visiting the United States, according to the complaint. Authorities launched an investigation, including video surveillance of the checkpoint.

Arato told authorities Tuesday that "he had considered harming himself," assistant U.S. attorney Eric Kanefsy told Magistrate Judge Michael A. Shipp.

Arato's public defender, John Yauch, said his client would not harm himself and was not a flight risk. "He has too much to live for."

Arato's colleague, identified in the complaint as the "co-schemer," began cooperating with authorities in September 2010 and told police he has been stealing from passengers at the checkpoint since about October 2009. The colleague said that he and Arato had agreed that when he stole from passengers, he would "kick up" half the money to Arato. Arato also regularly stole from passengers himself, sometimes giving his colleague some of that money, according to the complaint.

Between September 13 and October 5, Arato accepted a total of $3,100 from the colleague, the complaint said. In an audiotaped conversation, Arato told the colleague he did not feel bad stealing from foreigners, as they were "leaving this country with our money," according to the complaint.

The colleague told police he would steal, on average, $400 to $700 a day from passengers and gave Arato $200 to $400, the complaint said. Meanwhile, he said Arato usually stole $400 to $700 a day, sharing some of it at times.

On August 31, Arato stole $400 from a female passenger of Indian descent by conducting a search of her bag, according to the complaint. The woman noticed the money missing after passing through the checkpoint, and approached a senior special agent with the Office of the Inspector General to report it, the documents said. The agent left the woman to investigate, but saw Arato approach the woman, along with a police officer. Arato told the woman someone else had found the money on the floor and gave it to him, and returned it.

However, the complaint said, an AirIndia representative had told Arato's colleague that the woman had reported the theft and that a police officer was taking a report from her. "The co-schemer knew that he had not committed that particular theft and therefore believed Arato must have done it, so the co-schemer immediately called Arato on his cell phone to alert him," the complaint said.

Both Arato and the colleague are shown stealing money from passengers on video surveillance, according to the complaint, and video surveillance showed Arato accepting $100 bills on numerous occasions from the colleague.

Surveillance from September 29 shows the colleague pulling about $1,000 from an envelope and giving Arato $500, "which Arato accepted while laughing and then put into his front shirt pocket," the complaint said. "Arato then gave the middle finger to a visible security camera in the [transportation security officers'] office."

In audio recordings made October 5, the colleague told Arato that he took a "full envelope" from a passenger and put it in the security office next to the checkpoint, according to the complaint.

"Arato instructed the co-schemer to go to the airport gate where the passenger was scheduled to depart to make sure that the passenger departed the airport without noticing that their money was missing," the complaint said. "After the co-schemer told Arato that the passenger had departed, Arato accepted $900 from the co-schemer."

Authorities executed a search warrant to search Arato that same day, and found $1,300 in his pants pocket. "The serial numbers on $1,100 of the money recovered from Arato matched the serial numbers on the money that was provided to the co-schemer by law enforcement to give to Arato earlier that day," the complaint said. An additional $100 matched the serial number of a bill police gave the colleague the day earlier, and Arato told authorities he had used another $100 to buy groceries, according to the documents.

Between 2003, and Wednesday, 162 TSA employees were terminated or removed from duty for theft from passengers or luggage at checkpoints, according to the agency. The TSA said that number is a small fraction of those who were employed during that time.

"TSA holds its security officers to the highest professional and ethical standards and has a zero-tolerance policy for theft in the workplace," said TSA spokesman Nicholas Kimball. "We investigate any allegation of misconduct. When infractions are discovered, we move quickly to terminate the employment of offenders. It's sad that the reprehensible conduct of a few individuals threatens to tarnish the 50,000 honest, hard-working folks from all walks of life whose patriotism ensures the security of millions of people every single day."

CNN's Jeanne Meserve and Raelyn Johnson contributed to this report.