Manhattan federal prosecutors announced corruption charges Tuesday against a group of former NYPD officers who ran a conspiracy to expedite New York City gun license applications in exchange for bribes, including vacations, strippers, prostitutes, guns, and cash.
According to the complaint, from about 2014 to 2016, Two former members of the NYPD’s licensing division, Paul Dean, a former supervisor, and Robert Espinel, allegedly conspired with gun license “expediters” to fast-track handgun applications for clients that included people arrested and convicted for crimes involving weapons and violence, and for individuals with a history of domestic violence.
A third member of the conspiracy Gaetano “Guy” Valastro, a former NYPD detective, who owned a gun store and firearms training academy, which Dean and Espinel advised applicants to use to apply for licenses, is also charged in the case.
The NYPD license unit is a 40-officer unit responsible for approving the applications for all gun licenses and license upgrades in New York City. According to the complaint, the NYPD is aware that from time to time certain applicants utilize consultants who claim they can speed up the application process — known as expediters — but the police urge applicants to avoid their services.
Four other individuals also named in the indictment have pleaded guilty in the case in hopes of receiving lenient sentences. These other defendants are David Villanueva and Richard Ochetal, two former members of the NYPD license unit, who were charged with accepting bribes in exchange for granting gun licenses. Also named in the case are two gun license expediters, Shaya Lichtenstein and Frank Soohoo, the owner of a gun store, who both pleaded guilty to being involved in the conspiracy.
In a separate complaint, a former New York City prosector John Chambers is accused of bribing Villanueva with Broadway shows, tickets to sporting events, and an $8,000 Paul Picot watch to expedite gun licenses.
At times, according to the complaint, Villanueva and Ochetal also provided pre-signed “pink slips” — the documents that an applicant must obtain to present to a dealer each time they wish to purchase a gun — to expediters for their clients.
Investigators claim that by fostering a relationship involving under-the-table payments and the exchange of gifts, the expediters named in the case had free reign to walk into the license division’s office at One Police Plaza in New York City and negotiate the quick approval of their client’s applications.
During the execution of the scheme, Dean, who supervised the unit, allegedly told Villanueva he should buy his wife a shovel because they would make so much money that they would have to dig themselves out of it.
On occasion, according to the FBI, expediter and gun store proprietor Soohoo hosted Dean, Espinel, and Villanueva at his store, where he catered meals, provided alcohol, and hosted parties where he arranged, at Dean’s request, prostitutes and strippers to attend.
Soohoo also took Villanueva and Ochetal and their spouses on four vacations from 2014 to 2016 to the Bahamas, Mexico, Hawaii, and the Dominican Republic.
In addition, gun license applicants told the FBI that they provided gifts for approved licenses to the former officers, including free meals at restaurants, free liquor and beer, free car repairs, and vacations and nights out at strip clubs.
One applicant, identified by investigators as the owner of a bakery store in Brooklyn, told the FBI he took Dean, Espinel, and other NYPD officials to a strip club in Queens and paid thousands of dollars in services to get his gun license upgraded from a limited carry license to a full carry license.
Towards the end of 2015, the scheme shifted when Dean, Espinel and Valastro decided that after they retired from the NYPD they planned to go into the expediting business themselves by setting up a consulting firm. In one conversation, according to investigators, Espinel referred to “Jewish” expediters who were making “all the money while we’re busting our asses.”
In turn, the former officers attempted to extort the expediters, Soohoo and Lichtenstein, pressuring them to hand over clients and pay a fee to continue to have access to the license unit.
Investigators claim that the former officers met with Soohoo and threatened to have him banned from One Police Plaza if he did not pay them $500 for each of his clients. The former officers also made the same attempt to extort Lichtenstein, who according to the complaint, investigators believe was charging as much as $18,000 to clients in exchange for getting applications pushed through.
In addition to the conspiracy and bribery charges, Dean, Espinel and Valastro are charged with extortion in connection with their attempt to create their own gun license expediting business.
NYPD Commissioner James P. O’Neill said in a statement: “Over the past three years, the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau has conducted a thorough and comprehensive investigation in coordination with the FBI. The behavior, as alleged in today’s charging documents, is intolerable. The charges reflect a serious violation of the oath these officers swore to uphold, eroding the trust the public has in this Department. The NYPD will continue to investigate alleged wrongdoing and root out corruption wherever it might be found.”
Michael Hayes is a senior reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Mike Hayes at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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