Federal prosecutors in Manhattan announced on April 25 charges against three former NYPD officers from the South Shore, among others, for their alleged roles in multiple, years-long schemes to extract bribes for expediting and approving gun licenses.
Paul Dean, 44, of Wantagh, and Robert Espinel, 47, of Seaford, were arrested and charged in Manhattan federal court with conspiracy to commit bribery, among other offenses, along with Gaetano Valastro, an ex-NYPD detective and gun shop owner from Queens, and John Chambers, a former assistant district attorney in Kings County.
Prosecutors also said that David Villanueva, 43, of Valley Stream, a longtime NYPD sergeant, and Frank Soohoo, a Queens-based gun license expediter, pleaded guilty to bribery and other charges and are cooperating with authorities.
An expediter charges clients to assist them in completing the gun-licensing process. From at least 2013 to January 2016, Dean, Espinel, Villanueva and Officer Richard Ochetal solicited and accepted bribes — including cash, paid vacations, jewelry, catered parties, the service of prostitutes and free guns — from expediters in exchange for helping their clients obtain gun licenses “quickly and often with little to no diligence,” according to court documents.
Acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District on N.Y. Joon Kim said that corruption at the NYPD License Division — which is responsible for approving or rejecting all applications for handgun licenses in New York City — was allegedly pervasive, spawning “a cottage industry of parasitic profiteers.” Standing beside FBI Assistant Director William Sweeney Jr. and NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill at a news conference on April 25, Kim said that officials would continue to investigate the system.
“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,” Kim said. “When police officers violate their oath in this way, they not only betray the public they have sworn to protect, but their fellow officers who do their jobs the right way, remaining faithful to the duties they owe to the public and to each other.”
Dean, a retired lieutenant, was a member of the NYPD from 1994 to 2016. He was assigned to the License Division from 2008 to 2016, becoming one of its highest-ranking members in November 2014 and running its day-to-day operations for a year. Espinel was a member of the NYPD from 1995 to his retirement in 2016, and was assigned to the License Division from 2011 to 2016.
Officials said that Dean, Espinel, Villanueva and Ochetal solicited and accepted bribes from at least three expediters: Valastro, Soohoo and Alex Lichtenstein, also known as “Shaya.” In exchange, prosecutors allege, the police officers approved, expedited and upgraded licenses for the expediters’ clients by forgoing standard procedures.
Officials said that many applications that contained “red flags” were approved, including those of convicted criminals and people with histories of domestic violence. Sweeney said that the scheme “threatened the safety of our communities.”
“Law enforcement officials are granted authority to uphold the fundamental rule of law,” he said. “But any abuse of this power — no matter how great or how small — is nothing short of a crime in and of itself. The vast majority of NYPD officers who willingly protect our city each and every day, no matter the risks, shouldn’t be associated with a select few who, as charged, placed a higher priority on satisfying their desires than upholding the law.”
Dissatisfied with expediters who were making thousands of dollars per gun license applicant when they did the work to approve the applications, prosecutors said, Dean and Espinel retired in 2015 and went into the expediting business themselves. To make sure their business succeeded, officials said, they planned to bribe Villanueva, Ochetal and others still in the License Division so their clients would receive special treatment. They also allegedly made an agreement with Valastro to run their expediting and bribery scheme out of his gun store.
According to the plan, officials said, Valastro would benefit because Dean and Espinel would steer successful applicants to his shop to buy guns. The group also allegedly tried to corner the expediting market by forcing other expediters to work through them.
Dean and Espinel also reportedly attempted to coerce Soohoo into sharing his clients with them by threatening to use their influence in the License Division to shut down Soohoo’s expediting business if he refused to work with and pay them.
The Wantagh-Seaford residents were each charged with two counts of conspiracy to commit bribery — each of which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison — and one count of extortion, which carries a maximum term of 10 years.
John Powers, Espinel’s attorney, said his client maintains his innocence. He said that Espinel spent his professional career serving the public, and that it was a shame that he was arrested at his Seaford home on April 25 at 5 a.m.
“We continue to deny the allegations that we received a benefit in any way, shape or form from anybody from the licensing bureau or outside agencies or personnel,” Powers said. “Not a drink, not a meal — not anything.”
Abraham George, Dean’s lawyer, said that his client also denied the allegations against him. “This is a case that is predicated on the testimony of government cooperators who would say anything to get themselves out of trouble,” George said in a statement. “Mr. Dean, is a father of three children and has been a dedicated public servant to the people of the City of New York for over 20 years. He is presumed innocent under the law and looks forward to his day in court.”
Valastro was also charged with two counts of conspiracy to commit bribery and one count of making false statements.
Assistant U.S. attorneys Russell Capone, Kan Nawaday, and Lauren Schorr are prosecuting the case.