TSA officer accused of aiding drug smugglers
(BUFFALO NEWS) Minnetta Walker is a behavioral detection officer at Buffalo Niagara International Airport. Her job is to walk through the airport and look for individuals who might be planning some criminal activity.
But Walker — according to federal agents who arrested her Tuesday — got involved in criminal activity herself.
The 43-year-old Transportation Security Administration employee was arrested on charges that she provided information to suspected drug traffickers and helped them get past security checkpoints with minimum scrutiny.
Federal agents arrested her in a suspected Amherst drug dealer’s sport utility vehicle at about 11 a.m. Tuesday. Police said Walker — who was off-duty from her TSA job — drove the SUV to the airport to pick up the suspected dealer, Derek Frank, who was returning from Arizona.
U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. filed court papers charging Walker with tipping off one suspected trafficker that undercover drug agents were tailing him, and on other occasions, with accompanying alleged traffickers as they went through security screenings at the airport.
Walker is accused of a felony charge of conspiring to defraud the government by interfering with security measures at the airport. She pleaded not guilty and declined to comment when a reporter from The Buffalo News approached her in federal court.
“[Walker] interfered with and obstructed the security measures, procedures and requirements of the TSA,” FBI Special Agent Gary P. Jensen said in court papers.
Investigators said that, at this point, there is no indication that any other Buffalo TSA employees were involved in the alleged wrongdoing.
Walker is only accused of helping alleged traffickers smuggle money through the airport, said Dale M. Kasprzyk, resident agent in charge of the Buffalo office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
“At this point, she is not accused of smuggling drugs or accepting bribes from drug traffickers,” Kasprzyk said. “The charge against her is that she provided assistance to people, who we believe are traffickers, to help them move large amounts of cash through the airport.
As a specially trained “behavioral detection officer,” Walker was not confined to one post by the TSA, but was able to roam around the airport, looking for suspicious individuals, said Jensen, the FBI agent.
“TSA screeners generally do not question the activities of a [behavioral detection officer],” Jensen said in court papers. “This places Walker in a unique position to help individuals bypass security procedures and to detect the presence of law enforcement activity.”
According to court papers, Frank spoke to a cooperating witness last month and repeatedly made references to having a connection at the airport who could help him get past security while carrying lots of cash.
On Feb. 11, DEA and FBI agents gave the cooperating witness $12,000 to purchase marijuana from Frank, and Frank was to travel to Arizona to get the pot, the court papers stated.
With agents watching and following, Walker drove Frank to the airport and accompanied him as he went through security lines at the airport. After Frank cleared security and walked toward his departure gate, Walker waved goodbye to him and then left the airport in his SUV.
Walker was not on duty at the time of the Feb. 11 incident, but agents allege that her presence made it easier for Frank to get through security without being questioned.
“Normally, when people are found to be carrying large amounts of cash that they don’t declare, the TSA notifies the [Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority] police. They then notify us, and an investigation is begun,” Kasprzyk said.
Frank, of Millersport Highway in Amherst, was charged Tuesday with engaging in a continuing criminal drug enterprise. Like Walker, he pleaded not guilty before U.S. Magistrate Judge H. Kenneth Schroeder Jr.
Court papers filed against Walker and Frank alleged several other instances in which Walker is accused of helping suspected drug traffickers avoid trouble or screening.
The papers allege that, last March 22, a suspected drug dealer named Antonio Briggs was walking through the airport when Walker notified him undercover DEA agents were watching him.
Briggs then called a relative, telling him that “unda covas are watching me” and asking him to hide some alleged drug money that was being held in a closet at Briggs’ home.
“These [expletive] unda covas are watching me, and … I don’t know why,” Briggs told his relative in a phone call taped by the DEA.
Briggs was arrested in a federal drug conspiracy case last summer, and he pleaded not guilty, prosecutor Mary C. Baumgarten said.
TSA officials were aware of the investigation for months and assisted in it, agency spokeswoman Ann Davis told The News on Tuesday evening.
“Any time we learn that one of our people might be involved in criminal activity, we work in close partnership with other law enforcement agencies,” Davis said.
Davis said she could not say much about Walker’s situation but did not dispute a prosecutor’s statement that Walker will be suspended without pay.
During her court appearance, Walker said she makes $40,000 a year in her TSA job.
The Walker investigation began about 10 months ago, authorities said, when DEA agents and NFTA police received information that she might have been assisting drug dealers.
Walker is believed to be the first TSA employee from the Buffalo airport to be arrested on corruption charges since the agency was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Nationwide, the TSA has about 48,000 officers working in 457 U.S. airports, screening an average of 2 million passengers each day.
There have been some problems reported in other cities.
Last month, two TSA officers at Kennedy International Airport were charged with stealing $39,000 in cash from a piece of luggage. Authorities were quoted after the arrests as saying the two men admitted other thefts.
Last October, a TSA supervisor in Newark, N.J., was charged with stealing thousands of dollars from passengers, mostly from foreigners who could not speak English.
Davis, the TSA spokeswoman, said such incidents are statistically very rare, and she said they do not accurately reflect the overall quality of the agency’s work force.
In an unrelated incident, an NFTA police officer was suspended for 10 days in January after admitting that he had kept more than 1,000 items that TSA screeners had seized from passengers at the airport. The items included nail clippers, corkscrews and knives.
The name of the officer was not released.