New York

US charges four in NY police gun license bribery case

Three former New York police officers and a lawyer were arrested and charged Tuesday in a bribery case that allegedly plied police for years with exotic holidays, prostitutes and thousands of dollars in exchange for issuing gun licenses.

The New York scam allegedly saw more than 100 gun licenses issued on the back of bribes, without conducting the necessary background checks
The New York scam allegedly saw more than 100 gun licenses issued on the back of bribes, without conducting the necessary background checks (AFP)

NEW YORK - Three former New York police officers and a lawyer were arrested and charged Tuesday in a bribery case that allegedly plied police for years with exotic holidays, prostitutes and thousands of dollars in exchange for issuing gun licenses.

Two other sacked officers and two so-called gun license "expediters" have already pled guilty in the case, which prompted New York's police department -- the largest in the United States -- to implement reforms.

More than 100 gun licenses were issued on the back of bribes without conducting necessary background checks or following up on red flags, acting US attorney for Manhattan Joon Kim told reporters.

"They allegedly sold their oath to serve and protect," Kim said of the arrested former officers, named Tuesday as Paul Dean, 44, Robert Espinel, 47, and Gaetano Valastro, 58.

Dean, once the second-highest ranking member of the gun license division, and Espinel are accused of deliberately retiring from the police to run their own expediting services, driven by greed after seeing those in the business making more than $10,000 per license.

Valastro retired from the police in 1999 as a detective, later owning a store in Queens that sold firearms and provided weapons training.

The fourth suspect is 62-year-old John Chambers, a former assistant district attorney in Brooklyn and lawyer who helped clients navigate the licensing process in exchange for money.

From 2010 to 2015 Chambers allegedly bribed police with tickets to Broadway shows and sporting events, meals out, an $8,000 wristwatch and, for three pistol renewal applications, $1,500 in cash.

Others allegedly bribed police with thousands of dollars stuffed in envelopes, or hidden in magazines and sent through the mail, all-expenses paid vacations to the Caribbean and Hawaii, expensive liquor, visits to strip clubs and the services of prostitutes.

Two former police officers David Villanueva, 43, and Richard Ochetal have already pled guilty to accepting bribes in the case, US prosecutors first revealed in June 2016.

License expediters Frank Soohoo, 55, and Shaya Lichtenstein, have also pled guilty.

Soohoo allegedly took two police officers and their wives on a string of free holidays to the Bahamas, Mexico and the Dominican Republic -- even in one case on a honeymoon to Hawaii -- from 2014 to 2016.

He also allegedly plied police with the services of strippers.

New York police chief James O'Neill said the force had taken "immediate steps" to prevent the crimes from happening again, implementing changes and replacing all supervisory licensing staff.

Last June two New York police officials were arrested and charged with bribery for allegedly receiving luxury perks in exchange for providing special services to wealthy businessmen between 2012 and 2015.

Businessman Jeremy Reichberg, a major contributor to Mayor Bill de Blasio, was also charged with allegedly receiving services such as police escorts and help settling disputes in exchange for gifts.