Justice Department says NYPD cops traded bribes for gun licenses

Four cops allegedly built an unofficial fast lane into the NYPD’s gun licensing office.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Mary Altaffer
CREDIT: AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

New Yorkers who want a gun license know the process will take months, if not years, as New York Police Department officers review their mental health and criminal histories, interview them in person, and work to verify that they do actually need a firearm.

New Yorkers who know the right cop, on the other hand, can apparently circumvent the whole process. Put a couple thousand bucks in the right hands, and it doesn’t matter if you’ve got a long rap sheet or multiple domestic violence reports in your past: You’ll get your legal gun, with the NYPD’s stamp of approval, according to officials.

Such a two-track system has been operating for at least half a dozen years, federal and city anti-corruption investigators said on Tuesday. Investigators say they’ve been tracking the conspirators for four years.

The corruption investigators name four NYPD License Division officers and multiple civilian “expediters” who they say acted as middle-men between their cop friends and their gun-thirsty clients. The federal bribery and corruption charges detail a black market for official favors that is so stereotypically mobsterish that an HBO producer would laugh it off as too cliché for television.

Expediters sometimes paid cops in cash, but were just as likely to dish out favors — high-end booze, hired sex workers at after-hours parties, free vacations to the Bahamas, and the like — to keep their NYPD colleagues happy, prosecutors claim. One of the cops allegedly took to even smaller-time fare: after getting a bagel shop owner’s permit through the system, he never paid for breakfast again.

The details of the alleged conspiracy — to which all but one of the men charged Tuesday has pleaded guilty — are risible. But its costs are not.

“They approved licenses for individuals with substantial criminal histories, including arrests and convictions for crimes involving weapons or violence, and for individuals with histories of domestic violence,” FBI agent Joseph Downs writes in one of the four criminal complaints.

One man who allegedly bribed his way to a gun license had multiple prior assault convictions, an arrest for rape, and several “domestic incident reports,” which are supposed to disqualify a person from getting a gun permit in New York. In one of the domestic violence incidents, he had threatened to kill someone.

The License Division cops apparently did not limit their graft to approving initial applications for would-be gun owners—They also helped expediter clients keep their weapons when circumstances would normally have led the city to revoke a license, according to investigators.

One client, a liquor distributor, was arrested twice for violent incidents subsequent to the bribe-induced license to carry a gun — episodes that trigger an official review of the arrestee’s gun license. In both cases, cops involved in the conspiracy allegedly ushered the incident review through to re-approve the client’s license and made sure he got his gun back, even though he had brandished it at a customer in one of the incidents that led to an arrest.

The cops include retired Lieutenant Paul Dean, who was one of the two most senior officers at the License Division, and retired Officer Robert Espinel, who prosecutors identified as Dean’s primary henchman. The two men allegedly had long experience taking bribes from expediters like Shaya Lichtenstein, Frank Soohoo, and John Chambers, in exchange for passing applications through the system without doing any of the work required by New York City’s gun laws.

Tired of doing all the paperwork while the civilian middle-men got most of the profit, Dean and Espinel allegedly hatched a plan to retire from the NYPD and take over the entire license-expediting racket city-wide using their connections in their old office. That ambitious power-grab may have caused their downfall. Lichtenstein, who particularly enraged Espinel because his client rates were far higher than the bribes he allegedly paid, had started recording his conversations with NYPD co-conspirators.

It appears Dean and Espinel had two other officers inside the License Division helping them. Two of the civilian “expediters” they worked with had previously worked in city law enforcement — one for NYPD and the other as a prosecutor in Brooklyn. With just a half-dozen men, investigators say, the group was able to pervert the 40-person License Division, which is supposed to be the front line of enforcing New York City’s relatively strict gun laws.

The leaders of the License Division have been cheating the system for years, in increasingly brazen fashion, according to the complaints.

The conspiracy undermines the integrity of gun licensing and incident investigations involving legal gun owners. All it took was some rich people who wanted protection from stringent sentencing laws for unlicensed firearms in New York, and a couple of cops willing to abdicate their public responsibility for cash envelopes and top-shelf liquor.

There are more than 30,000 sworn officers in the NYPD. They routinely encounter people who have guns they should not have, according to city and federal law, and seek to punish those illegal gun owners accordingly.

But the same institution has also allowed a special-access tunnel to be built around those laws, whereby the wealthy and connected can carry a gun without fearing the long tacked-on sentences that come with unlicensed firearms.

For those reluctant to entertain criticisms of the law enforcement industry on the grounds that abusive, corrupt, or dishonest cops are a rare minority within the profession, the ability of such a small cluster of conspirators to make mockery of an entire city’s gun policy may be a wake-up call.