Three ex-NYPD cops traded handgun licenses for cash, prostitutes, and expensive trips, according to a criminal complaint filed Tuesday. And a former assistant district attorney-turned-gun rights lawyer was charged with bribing cops with luxuries in a parallel complaint.
Getting a gun license in New York can be a lengthy and intensive procedure, which includes getting approval from the NYPD. An industry of “expeditors” popped up to help clients speed through the process, sometimes aided by crooked cops looking to make a buck by pushing applications along from the inside. All the men charged Tuesday were implicated by alleged co-conspirators who have pleaded guilty, including ex-NYPD licensing division sergeant David Villanueva and former expeditor Frank Soohoo, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.
Former cops Paul Dean, Robert Espinel, and Gaetano Valastro are charged with two counts conspiracy to commit bribery, among other crimes; John Chambers, the ex-ADA, has been hit with charges of bribery and conspiracy to commit bribery.
“As alleged, for the police officers and expediters charged in this case, the critically important police function of issuing and controlling gun licenses was one they were willing to pervert for personal profit,” said Manhattan acting U.S. attorney Joon Kim.
Dean and Espinel are accused of taking bribes from so-called “gun expeditors” including their co-defendant Valastro, Soohoo, and Alex Lichtenstein, a former Orthodox Jewish safety patrol leader who also pleaded guilty to bribing cops for gun permits. The men, along with Villanueva, allegedly accepted cash, vacations, prostitutes, and booze in exchange for signing off on gun permits quickly, and without due diligence. Kim, the acting U.S. attorney, said Tuesday the cash was handed off inside envelopes or stuffed in magazines.
Under the cops’ watch, gun licenses allegedly went to people with substantial criminal histories, including ones involving violence. Ordinarily, applicants with prior felony convictions are automatically rejected, according to the complaint. In one allegation cited by prosecutors, Dean approved and upgraded licenses for a man arrested for two assault-related incidents—one where he even allegedly whipped out his gun.
“Dean directed, after the first arrest that [the man’s] license not be suspended,” the complaint alleges. “Espinel then returned [the man’s] gun, which had originally been seized by the NYPD.”
Meanwhile, Espinel and Dean got free beer from the man’s beverage distributorship, according to the complaint.
Other applicants who got help from Dean and Espinel allegedly plied them with free bagels, strippers, pizza, and booze.
But two years of taking kickbacks on the police side allegedly proved insufficient for Dean and Espinel. Dean was one of the licensing division’s top cops and even ran its day-to-day operations for a year, according to the complaint. He allegedly begged Lichtenstein for a Rolex for his services but was handed $1,000 in cash instead.
Prosecutors say they quit the cop business in 2015 to go into the expediting business themselves. Before they did, the men allegedly arranged to continue their dirty doings from the other side. The men are accused of arranging to run their business through Valastro’s gun story, and to bribe Villanueva and others still in the licensing division to process their requests.
Charged in a parallel complaint is former Brooklyn ADA John Chambers, who boasted about being New York's "top handgun licensing attorney" on Twitter. He is accused of bribing Villanueva with Broadway and sports tickets, as well as an expensive watch, to help the clients he represented before the licensing division.
In exchange, the regular 30 to 40 day application renewal period was cut to as little as one day for Chambers’s clients, according to the complaint. Villanueva also fast tracked investigations into Chambers’s clients and shortened their license suspensions, according to the complaint.
"There are high-profile people as well as average businessmen who want a permit but don't feel comfortable doing the process themselves," John Chambers told Crain’s New York in 2012. He also boasted in the article that “he's worked with security officers for Mr. [Donald] Trump and also consulted on an airport issue for Harry Connick Jr.”
After another arrest in the corruption scandal last year, Chambers gave comment to the New York Post about Lichtenstein, the former Shomrim leader who pleaded guilty last year. Lichtenstein had close ties with police in the licensing division, which helped him expedite the permits, Chambers said.
Chambers said he wound up representing more than a dozen individuals who had carry permits revoked after that probe.
"These are people who are baffled to have received a letter suspending their pistol licenses for a police investigation that has nothing to do [with] them and when they've done nothing wrong," he told the Post. "They had a legitimate belief that they were paying for an expediter who was going to help them who was, in turn, hiring a lawyer for their case."
At a press conference on Tuesday, NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill said that more than 400 gun licenses had been flagged as suspicious by an NYPD Internal Affairs Bureau review. Of those, about 100 had been suspended, while more than 200 are currently under review.
Kim, the acting U.S. attorney, praised the NYPD and the FBI for their work in cases involving official corruption.
“Public corruption cases are difficult to make, and police corruption cases are even more so,” Kim said. “All of this shows that the NYPD is prepared to police its own, and is committed to living up to the principle that no one is above the law.”