Gun License “Expediter” Pleads Guilty In Manhattan Federal Court To Bribery In Connection With NYPD-Issued Gun Licenses
Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced today that ALEX LICHTENSTEIN, a/k/a “Shaya,” pled guilty to bribery and offering a bribe in connection with his efforts to pay bribes to obtain gun licenses through the New York City Police Department’s (“NYPD”) License Division. LICHTENSTEIN pled guilty before United States District Judge Sidney H. Stein today.
Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said: “As he admitted today, Alex Lichtenstein acted as a corrupt gun ‘expediter,’ bribing police officers to obtain gun licenses, offering thousands of dollars per license. In a recorded conversation, Lichtenstein bragged of using his NYPD connections to obtain 150 gun licenses. This type of corruption not only undermines public confidence in law enforcement, but it undermines public safety. And it cannot be tolerated. I thank the FBI and the NYPD for their dedication and commitment to this case and this important investigation.”
According to the Complaint and Indictment filed in Manhattan federal court and statements made during the plea proceeding:
LICHTENSTEIN is a member of the Borough Park Shomrim, a volunteer, ostensibly unarmed, Orthodox Jewish patrol society whose mission includes combating criminal activity and locating missing people. LICHTENSTEIN ran a business charging clients thousands of dollars to expedite their gun license applications. LICHTENSTEIN charged his clients as much as $18,000 per gun license.
In April 2016, LICHTENSTEIN approached an officer for the NYPD and offered the officer cash bribes in order for the officer to help LICHTENSTEIN obtain gun licenses for LICHTENSTEIN’s customers from the NYPD’s License Division. The License Division is responsible for reviewing, investigating, and approving or disapproving all applications for gun licenses in New York City. The License Division receives approximately 5,000 applications for gun licenses per year. LICHTENSTEIN told the officer that he charged customers thousands of dollars to help obtain License Division approval for their gun license applications, and that he was able to get the licenses approved using his own connections in the License Division, although those connections had recently cut him out.
The officer did not agree to assist LICHTENSTEIN, and reported the encounter to the NYPD Internal Affairs Bureau (“IAB”). Working with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) and IAB, the officer set up and recorded a meeting with LICHTENSTEIN, at which LICHTENSTEIN offered the officer $6,000 per license application that the officer could help get through the License Division. In that recorded meeting, LICHTENSTEIN told the officer that he had obtained gun licenses for approximately 150 individuals in the past, and that his customers needed his services because the License Division would otherwise reject applications “for the biggest stupidity,” such as a history of moving violations. LICHTENSTEIN boasted that he was able to use his connections in the License Division to “expedite” the application process, i.e., to forego the full investigation typically conducted before the NYPD License Division approves or disapproves an application. The officer asked LICHTENSTEIN if his previous connections in the License Division were making money, to which LICHTENSTEIN responded, “now they cut down, now nobody’s making money.”
In fact, LICHTENSTEIN had substantial connections to a sergeant in the License Division, David Villanueva, who had worked at the License Division for more than a decade. A Commanding Officer at the NYPD with whom Villanueva was friendly introduced LICHTENSTEIN to the License Division and Villanueva in or about 2013. From that introduction through early 2016, LICHTENSTEIN spent significant time at the License Division with Villanueva, often on a near daily basis. From at least 2012 through 2016, LICHTENSTEIN gave Villanueva cash bribes and other benefits to pay for Villanueva’s work in expediting and approving gun license applications for LICHTENSTEIN’s clients. Richard Ochetal, a police officer who worked under Villanueva, did first-level review of many of these applications and was instructed to approve them. Ochetal was compensated in the form of some of the cash that LICHTENSTEIN gave to Villanueva. Villanueva is currently charged in a case pending before Judge Stein, and Ochetal pled guilty to accepting bribes in exchange for the approval of gun license applications, and is cooperating with the Government in the investigation.
In reviewing and approving applications for LICHTENSTEIN’s clients, Villanueva and Ochetal omitted some of the required checks, such as criminal history checks, and in other instances ran checks only after they approved licenses. They also approved applications despite red flags that, had they not been bribed, may have led those applications to be rejected. For example, they approved applications of individuals with prior arrests and previous allegations of domestic violence. In addition, Villanueva and Ochetal approved applications for licenses to carry firearms, which require certain business-related justifications, in scenarios were there was no real business justification for the request. A review of the applications of LICHTENSTEIN’s clients reveals that Villanueva and Ochetal were able to secure licenses for those clients often within weeks, whereas the process normally takes months to, in some instances, over a year. Villanueva and Ochetal did this for LICHTENSTEIN’s clients because of the cash payments coming from LICHTENSTEIN, as well as other benefits, such as limousine rides, bottles of liquor, and a wine tour.
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LICHTENSTEIN, 44, who now resides in Pomona, New York, has pled guilty to one count of bribery, which carries a maximum term of 10 years in prison, and one count of offering a bribe, which carries a maximum term of 10 years in prison. The maximum potential sentences are prescribed by Congress and are provided here for informational purposes only, as any sentencing of the defendant will be determined by the judge.
Mr. Bharara praised the investigative work of the FBI and the NYPD Internal Affairs Bureau, and noted that the investigation is continuing.
This case is being handled by the Office’s Public Corruption Unit. Assistant United States Attorneys Kan M. Nawaday, Russell Capone, Martin S. Bell, and Lauren Schorr are in charge of the prosecution.
 Villanueva was charged in an indictment unsealed on June 20, 2016, with one count of bribery, which carries a maximum term of 10 years in prison, and one count of conspiracy to commit bribery, which carries a maximum term of five years in prison. The charges against Villanueva are merely accusations, and he is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.