A former federal security officer admitted Friday that she helped members of a local drug gang smuggle cash through the Buffalo Niagara International Airport.
Minnetta Walker, who was arrested in March after an 11-month investigation, admitted that she helped an alleged member of the drug ring use a fake name for traveling and helped him bypass security scanners at the airport.
The 43-year-old Buffalo woman also admitted that she once warned two of the man's alleged drug associates that federal agents were tailing them in the airport.
The case raises disturbing questions:
*Did Walker, an employee of the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, act alone?
*Is her case an indication of serious security problems at the airport?
*If Buffalo drug dealers can evade airport security to smuggle cash, could terrorists use the same methods to smuggle dangerous weapons or substances?
Federal officials said they could not provide specific answers to those questions Friday afternoon, but no other officials of the TSA or the airport are charged in the case, according to U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr.
Hochul said he hopes the case will cause the TSA to take a close look at security at airports in Buffalo and other cities, to determine whether improvements need to be made.
"It is certainly of concern to the Department of Justice," said Hochul, the region's chief federal prosecutor. "I would certainly recommend that there be an ongoing review There definitely needs to be a learning experience [for] all of us."
The tactics Walker used are being closely examined to make sure others cannot repeat them, said George W. Gast, who oversees airport security as chief of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority Police.
Walker was arrested after an investigation by Buffalo agents of the FBI, NFTA Police, the Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement.
In a related case Thursday, a former employee of the Buffalo city clerk's office pleaded guilty to a felony, admitting that she made up a false birth certificate that an alleged drug dealer, Derek Frank, used for interstate travel.
Regina McCullen, 53, a former customer assistant who was fired by the city in May, pleaded guilty to an identity fraud conspiracy charge.
The Buffalo News learned that at least one other person -- an individual who is close to McCullen and works for an airline -- is also expected to be charged criminally in the case.
Walker has not been charged with receiving payoffs or gratuities of any kind from the drug traffickers she helped, Hochul said. The prosecutor said he really doesn't know at this point why Walker did it.
When District Judge Richard J. Arcara asked Walker why she helped the drug dealers, she had little information for him.
"I don't know I wasn't thinking," she said.
But her court-appointed attorney, James DeMatteo, said Walker told him she did have a reason, and it wasn't money.
"She told me that Derek Frank is a close friend of her family, and that she did this for one reason -- to help a friend," DeMatteo said. "I know the government doesn't believe her, but I don't know of one piece of evidence they have that she got money from any of these guys. She certainly hasn't been out buying expensive cars or jewelry."
Walker is sorry for her actions, and after taking her plea, she "burst into tears" in a courthouse elevator and "was almost out of control," DeMatteo said.
"She's made a huge mistake. She's lost an excellent job with a decent paycheck and excellent benefits," DeMatteo said.
Before the TSA fired her after her arrest, Walker told a judge she made about $40,000 annually as a behavioral detection officer at the airport.
Her job was to walk around the airport, looking for suspicious individuals who might be planning some criminal activity. Instead, she admitted she spent at least some of her working hours accompanying drug suspects as they walked through security checkpoints without undergoing close examination of themselves or their carry-on luggage.
Because Walker was close by Frank's side, other TSA workers let him slide through the checkpoints with a minimum of scrutiny, authorities said.
According to a TSA spokeswoman, Lisa Farbstein, it would be unfair for Walker's actions to reflect on more than 47,000 TSA workers who work to ensure the safety of travelers.
TSA worked closely with federal prosecutors and agents on the probe, Farbstein said.
"The agency aggressively investigates all allegations of misconduct," Farbstein said. She said the agency has a "zero tolerance" approach to illegal actions such as Walker's.
While Walker is believed to be the first TSA worker to be criminally charged in Buffalo, the agency has had scandals in other cities.
In February, two TSA officers at Kennedy International Airport were charged with stealing $39,000 from a piece of luggage. A TSA supervisor in Newark, N.J., was charged last year with stealing thousands of dollars from foreign passengers, mostly people who could not speak English.
After an internal investigation in June, the TSA announced that it would seek the termination of 30 workers at the Honolulu International Airport in Hawaii. The probe focused on the improper screening of passenger baggage.
Speaking about the Buffalo probe on Friday, Hochul commended the work of the lead prosecutor on the case, Mary Catherine Baumgarten.
Under advisory sentencing guidelines, Walker faces a federal prison term in the probable range of 18 to 24 months. She pleaded guilty to conspiring to defraud the federal government.