TSA Watch: Oh, so this is what they mean by “zero tolerance”

Here are two more reasons you should never check valuables in your luggage when you’re flying: Michael Pujol and his wife, Betsy Pujol Salazar.

The couple was arrested last week and charged with grand theft. Investigators say Pujol, a TSA agent at Miami International Airport, stuffed items from passengers’ luggage inside a hidden pocket in his work jacket.

The Pujols were caught after a missing iPad was traced to them through a Craigslist transaction. Pujol Salazar admitted that she and her husband had taken items stolen from luggage and sold them online for the last three years.

Back in 2008, when I started reporting about TSA’s little crime epidemic, the agency strongly denounced the actions of its thieving agents, insisting it had “zero tolerance” for their actions.

The thefts “in no way represent the overwhelming majority of hard working officers in airports around the country,” the agency declared on its blog.

Since then, I’ve wondered: What does TSA mean by “zero tolerance”?

I think actions speak louder than words.

Just a few days ago, a screener at LaGuardia Airport was arrested for allegedly swiping a pricey laptop from a college student at a screening area. TSA employee Edwin Rosario, 27, was charged with grand larceny and possession of stolen property for taking a $1,300 computer a passenger had left behind.

A few weeks before, the TSA was accused of taking money out of a Florida couple’s luggage. No arrests have been made yet, and the agency refuses to release security camera footage that could implicate the thief because of “security” concerns. The agency also told the passengers that its screeners “never steal.”

Last month, another TSA worker in Memphis was arrested and charged with theft. Police say Ricky German, 48, tried to swipe a laptop that had been left at his screening station. Surveillance video showed German carrying away the laptop and throwing away papers with the owner’s name on it. After police arrived and said they would view the surveillance video, German then claimed he “found” the laptop.

This fall, a passenger going through security at Phoenix Airport left the screening area $200 lighter. He thinks one of the agents helped himself to his cash when he was checked. Surveillance video didn’t implicate the TSA, but the passenger, Tyson Tibshraeny, is unconvinced. “Where I have a problem is they wanted to separate me from my wallet,” he says.

A few weeks earlier, a TSA agent lost his job and is faced grand theft charges for allegedly pocketing a $450 pen owned by Rick Case, a prominent South Florida car dealership owner. Investigators say Toussain Puddie, 30, admitted to taking Case’s pen after it was left behind during a checkpoint screening at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

“Finders keepers doesn’t apply when you are a public servant and have the public’s trust,” a Sheriff Department spokesman said.

It’s easy to see how agents like Puddie might think otherwise. After all, Congress allows the TSA to keep the pocket change air travelers leave behind — why not their pens or laptop computers?

I could go on. There are dozens more documented cases of TSA agents being arrested and charged with theft in 2011, but you get the idea. (And never mind the items that TSA confiscates from us legally, like cosmetics, liquids and other, so-called “prohibited items.”

Bear in mind that these are just the agents that are caught. Chances are, there are many other TSA workers who are getting away with their thieving ways. Pay attention to the reported convictions, too. Even the agents who are caught are often given a slap on the wrist. It might be reasonable to assume that now more than ever, the TSA is afflicted by a theft epidemic.

Is this what “zero tolerance” looks like?

Look, I get it. Insisting the TSA doesn’t tolerate theft makes for a catchy TV sound bite. But if you really think about it, it’s nonsense.

Saying the TSA now has “zero tolerance” for thefts — which it proclaimed back in 2008 — implies that before then, it had some tolerance for it. (Actually, that’s a whole lot closer to the truth; if TSA’s policy were truly “zero tolerance” then it would summarily dismiss any agent who takes a pencil from a desk or “borrows” a pair of those latex gloves they use for patting us down — that’s zero tolerance.)

I think “zero tolerance” might just be empty rhetoric designed to make us think our federal screeners will be held to a higher standard. They’re words that are meant to soothe us, to convince us to stop worrying about our property being spirited away by a screener.

They are words we should question.

Why do the very people who are supposed to be protecting us also steal from us with such frequency? They do it because they can. They do it because, despite what their mouthpieces tell us on the evening news, they know they’ll probably get away with it.

We hear “zero tolerance.” But the TSA workforce hears “zero accountability.”

(Photo: Caryn K./Flickr)

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