NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — A former New York City police lieutenant, two former police officers and a lawyer who once worked as a prosecutor were arrested in a federal gun licensing probe Tuesday as authorities described a scam in which police employees traded speedy handling of gun permits for paid vacations, jewelry, catered parties, cash and visits to strip clubs.
As CBS2 Political Reporter Marcia Kramer explained, it forced the NYPD to yank hundreds of permits and overhaul the gun licensing unit.
According to court papers, the trading of gun licenses for bribes stretched from at least 2010 to 2016. Authorities said members of the NYPD License Division solicited and accepted bribes from individuals who charged customers fees to secure gun licenses.
Acting U.S. Attorney Joon H. Kim detailed the “alleged corruption that pervaded the license division up to its senior levels” and “that spawned a cottage industry of bribers masquerading as so called expediters.”
Among those charged was Paul Dean, 44, a police lieutenant and the second-highest ranking member of the License Division when he retired in January 2016. He supervised about 40 uniformed police employees and had ultimate authority to approve or reject licenses and upgrade requests, authorities said.
A criminal complaint filed in Manhattan federal court said Dean sought and obtained from gun license applicants free restaurant meals, free liquor, free car repairs and free entertainment, including trips to strip clubs.
One expediter Alex ‘Shaya’ Lichtenstein tape recorded Dean. Lichtenstein was later indicted — feds found the tapes when they searched his computer.
“I’m done watching people make money off my back. I’m the one who’s signing off on everything, and watching them get money hand over fist,” Dean was recorded saying.
Authorities said the permits were issued without background checks — including permits given to those with criminal histories.
One license was issued to a “person that had 10 moving violations and had been the subject of at least four domestic violence complaints including one in which he allegedly threatened to kill someone,” Kim said.
Also charged were Robert Espinel, a former police officer who worked in the license division until his retirement last year, as well as Gaetano Valastro, a former NYPD detective who is now a gun license expediter and gun shop owner, Kim said.
“They allegedly sold their oath to serve and protect, they sold their duty to do their jobs, they just issued gun licenses to whoever the bribing expediters brought them without conducting the necessary background checks, without questioning their need for a gun license and without following up on major red flags,” Kim said. “Over 100 gun licenses were issued in this problematic way.”
The former officers face up to 10 years in federal prison if convicted.
Also charged was John Chambers, an attorney who worked from 1983 to 1985 as an assistant district attorney in the Brooklyn district attorney’s office.
According to a criminal complaint, Chambers marketed himself to potential clients as the “Top Firearms Licensing Attorney in NY” and said he specialized in interview, appeal, hearing, renewal, incident, or any other issue arising regarding gun licensing.
The complaint said he gave members of the NYPD License Division tickets to Broadway shows and sporting events; sports memorabilia; an $8,000 watch; and cash hidden in magazines.
The lawyer had clients on Long Island.
Attorney Barry Slotnick, representing Chambers, said Chambers will plead not guilty to the charges, which include conspiracy.
“He’s an excellent lawyer. We do believe that he has not done anything inappropriate or wrong,” Slotnick said.
The arrests are part of an ongoing probe that led to a shakeup of the NYPD’s licensing division last year.
“Today’s announcement is not a happy occasion for any of us in the NYC Police Department,” NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill said. “When members of our department betray the public’s trust through intentional illegal acts it erodes the confidence, the faith and goodwill every other member of the department of has worked so hard to earn from the millions of millions of people we dutily serve every day.”
O’Neill said the division was swept clean and changes have been made.
“We’ve replaced all the supervisory staff and we increased supervision,” O’Neill said, adding that 100 licenses were revoked as a result of the investigation.
Kim announced Tuesday that two people initially charged in the investigation — former NYPD Sgt. David Villanueva and Frank Soohoo, a gun license expediter and former auxiliary member of the NYPD — have pleaded guilty and are cooperating with investigators.
(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)