(ABC News) – A convicted TSA security officer says he was part of a “culture” of indifference that allowed corrupt employees to prey on passengers’ luggage and personal belongings with impunity, thanks to lax oversight and tip-offs from TSA colleagues.
“It was very commonplace, very,” said Pythias Brown, a former TSA officer at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey who admits he stole more than $800,000 worth of items from luggage and security checkpoints over a four-year period.
“It was very convenient to steal,” he said.
Speaking publicly for the first time after being released from prison, Brown told ABC News his four-year-long crime spree came to an end only because he tried to sell a camera he stole from the luggage of a CNN producer on E-bay but forgot to remove all of the news networks’ identifying stickers.
“It became so easy, I got complacent,” Brown said.
Brown is one of almost 400 TSA officers who have been fired for stealing from passengers in the past decade. According to the TSA, 381 TSA officers have been fired for theft between 2003 and 2012, including 11 so far in this year.
In a statement to ABC News, the agency said it has “a zero-tolerance policy for theft and terminates any employee who is determined to have stolen from a passenger.”
The agency disputes that theft is a widespread problem, however, saying the number of officers fired “represents less than one-half of one percent of officers that have been employed” by TSA.
Congressional critics say the theft problem is no surprise, given TSA’s failure to do proper background checks on personnel hired to handle security screening.
“TSA is probably the worst personnel manager that we have in the entire federal government,” said Rep. John Mica, R-Florida, chairman of the House Transportation Committee. “It is an outrage to the public and, actually, to our aviation security system,” he said.
Assigned to screen luggage behind the ticket counters, Brown said he often worked alone, was told when overhead surveillance cameras to prevent theft were not working, and was never asked about suspicious behavior.
“It was so easy,” said Brown, “I walked right out of the checkpoint with a Nintendo Wii in my hand. Nobody said a word.”
He said he soon learned how to read the X-ray scans to find the most valuable items to steal.
“I could tell whether it was cameras or laptops or portable cameras or whatever kind of electronic was in the bag,” Brown said.
At the time of his arrest, Brown was offering for sale some 80 cameras, video games and computers on his personal eBay page.
“It was like being on drugs, it was,” he told ABC News. “I was like, ‘What am I doing?’ but the next day I was right back at it.”
Brown described one instance when he got a tip off about complaints from passengers about thefts.
“One gentleman that used to work in the office one day came to me and said, ‘They were talking about you in the office. Be careful.’ I said, ‘Okay.’”
Brown told ABC News he decided to go public and admit his crimes in an effort to warn airline passengers about what could happen with luggage screened by TSA.
Even the special TSA locks sold for luggage won’t work, Brown says, because TSA employees learned how to pick them without being detected.
The convicted TSA officer said he believes that most people working for the agency are honest but that poor morale and a low pay scale led some to be tempted to steal.
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“They didn’t think it was okay, but they did it and said, ‘I don’t care. They ain’t paying me. They’re treating me wrong.’ But then when people started seeing they could profit off of it, then it became massive,” said Brown.