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Justice News

Department of Justice
U.S. Attorney’s Office
Southern District of New York

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Three Former Police Officers And Former Assistant District Attorney Arrested In Connecton With Gun License Bribery Scheme

Two Others, Including Former Police Officer and Auxiliary Police Officer, Plead Guilty and Agree to Cooperate

Joon H. Kim, the Acting United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, William F. Sweeney Jr., Assistant Director-in-Charge of the New York Field Office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”), and James P. O’Neill, Commissioner of the New York City Police Department (“NYPD”), announced today that PAUL DEAN, ROBERT ESPINEL, GAETANO VALASTRO, a/k/a “Guy,” and JOHN CHAMBERS were arrested and charged in Manhattan federal court with conspiracy to commit bribery, among other offenses, in connection with a scheme involving the approval of gun licenses by the NYPD License Division in exchange for cash payments and non-monetary bribes.  Acting U.S. Attorney Kim also announced the unsealing of the guilty pleas of David Villanueva, a former NYPD Sergeant assigned to the License Division, and Frank Soohoo, a gun license expediter.  In connection with their guilty pleas, Villanueva and Soohoo have agreed to cooperate with the Government.

DEAN and ESPINEL were arrested and charged in Manhattan federal court with two counts of conspiracy to commit bribery, and one count of extortion; VALASTRO was arrested and charged in Manhattan federal court in the same case with two counts of conspiracy to commit bribery, and one count of making false statements.  CHAMBERS was arrested and charged separately in Manhattan federal court with one count of conspiracy to commit bribery and one count of bribery.  All four defendants were arrested this morning by FBI agents and officers from the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau (“IAB”), and will be presented before U.S. Magistrate Judge Kevin Nathaniel Fox in Manhattan this afternoon.

Acting Manhattan U.S. Attorney Joon H. Kim said:  “Corruption was allegedly pervasive at the NYPD’s License Division going up as high as Lieutenant Paul Dean, until recently the Division’s second in command, and including three other officers, Sergeant David Villanueva, Officer Robert Espinel and Officer Richard Ochetal.  Corruption at the License Division also spawned a cottage industry of parasitic profiteers, alleged bribers masquerading as so-called expediters, that included other former police officers and John Chambers, a lawyer and former Brooklyn prosecutor.  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.  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.  This Office, along with our partners at the FBI and NYPD, remain as committed as ever to ensure that public servants serve the public, not their personal pocketbooks.” 

FBI Assistant Director William F. Sweeney Jr. said:  “Law enforcement officials are granted authority to uphold the fundamental rule of law. But any abuse of this power – no matter how great or how small – is nothing short of a crime in and of itself.  Today, as alleged, a series of gun expediters and former NYPD officers of various ranks face charges for their alleged role in a scheme that threatened the safety of our communities.  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.”

NYPD Commissioner James P. O’Neill said:  “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 at 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.”

According to the allegations in the Complaints unsealed today in Manhattan federal

court[1]:

DEAN was a member of the NYPD from 1994 through 2016, and was assigned to the License Division from 2008 through 2016.  DEAN, a Lieutenant, was one of the highest-ranking members of the License Division and, from approximately November 2014 through November 2015, regularly ran the day-to-day operations of the License Division.  ESPINEL was a member of the NYPD from 1995 through his retirement in 2016, and was assigned to the License Division from 2011 through 2016. 

From at least 2013 through 2016, DEAN, ESPINEL, Villanueva, and Police Officer Richard Ochetal solicited and accepted bribes from gun license expediters in exchange for providing assistance to the expediters’ clients in obtaining gun licenses quickly and often with little to no diligence.   They obtained bribes from at least three expediters: VALASTRO, Soohoo, and Alex Lichtenstein, a/k/a “Shaya.”  VALASTRO was a former NYPD Detective who retired in 1999, and who operated a gun store out of which he sold guns, gun paraphernalia, and gun safety courses.

The bribes included cash payments, paid vacations, food and liquor, the services of prostitutes, and free guns, among other things.  In exchange, DEAN, ESPINEL, Villanueva, and Ochetal approved, expedited, and upgraded licenses for clients of VALASTRO, Lichtenstein, and Soohoo.  They did so by forgoing standard License Division diligence, including by failing to interview the applicants and failing to investigate the business-based need for applicants to carry guns.  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.

In 2015, dissatisfied with the fact that expediters were profiting thousands of dollars per gun license applicant when DEAN, ESPINEL, and others did the work to approve those applications, DEAN and ESPINEL decided to retire and go into the expediting business themselves.  In order to ensure the success of their business, DEAN and ESPINEL planned to bribe Villanueva, Ochetal, and others still in the License Division to enable their clients to get special treatment.  They also agreed with VALASTRO to run their expediting and bribery scheme out of VALASTRO’s gun store.  According to the plan, VALASTRO would benefit from the scheme because DEAN and ESPINEL would steer successful applicants to VALASTRO’s store to buy guns.  They also tried to corner the expediting market by forcing other expediters to work through them.  DEAN and ESPINAL attempted to coerce Soohoo into sharing his expediting clients with them by threatening to use their influence in the License Division to shut down Soohoo’s expediting business if Soohoo refused to work with, and make payments to, DEAN and ESPINEL. 

*                *                *

In addition to this bribery scheme, JOHN CHAMBERS, a former Assistant District Attorney in Kings County, was arrested for a separate bribery conspiracy with Villanueva.  CHAMBERS is an attorney who represents individuals before the License Division, and who markets himself to potential clients as the “Top Firearms Licensing Attorney in NY.”  From at least 2010 through 2015, CHAMBERS gave Villanueva numerous valuable items, including tickets to sporting and entertainment events for Villanueva and his family, free dinners and lunches for Villanueva, sports memorabilia, and a wristwatch valued at approximately $8,000.

In exchange, Villanueva assisted CHAMBERS’s clients in several ways.  He ensured that renewal applications submitted by CHAMBERS’s clients, which typically take 30 to 40 days for approval, were renewed more expeditiously, sometimes as quickly as within one day.  In addition, in evaluating “incidents” – investigations to determine whether an individual’s gun license should be suspended or revoked – Villanueva expedited the investigations, and then shortened the suspension periods, for CHAMBERS’s clients.
           
Villanueva also helped CHAMBERS renew gun licenses for clients before the Pistol Section of the Nassau County Police Department, where Villanueva had contacts.  Starting in or about 2012, CHAMBERS brought his clients’ renewal applications to Villanueva at One Police Plaza, and Villanueva mailed those applications to the Pistol Section using his NYPD License Division stationery.  Villanueva did so knowing that because he was submitting the renewal applications using his NYPD License Division stationery, the renewals would be approved in a significantly faster time for CHAMBERS’s clients than for other applicants.  In exchange, CHAMBERS paid Villanueva several times in cash, as well as with tickets to sporting and entertainment events for Villanueva and his family.  CHAMBERS typically mailed Villanueva the cash by taping it to the inside of a magazine.      

*                *                *

DEAN, 44, who resides in Wantagh, New York, has been charged with two counts of conspiracy to commit bribery, each of which carries a maximum term of five years in prison, and one count of extortion, which carries a maximum term of 10 years in prison.

ESPINEL, 47, who resides in Seaford, New York, has been charged with two counts of conspiracy to commit bribery, each of which carries a maximum term of five years in prison, and one count of extortion, which carries a maximum term of 10 years in prison.

VALASTRO, 58, who resides in Queens, New York, has been charged with two counts of conspiracy to commit bribery, each of which carries a maximum term of five years in prison, and one count of making false statements, which also carries a maximum term of five years in prison.

CHAMBERS, 62, who resides in Manhattan, New York, has been charged 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.

Villanueva, 43, pled guilty in February 2017 to one count of conspiracy to commit bribery, four counts of bribery, and one count of making false statements.

Soohoo, 55, pled guilty in October 2016 to one count of conspiracy to commit bribery, one count of bribery, one count of making false statements, and one count of mail fraud.

The maximum potential sentences are prescribed by Congress and are provided here for informational purposes only, as any sentencing of the defendants will be determined by the judge.

Mr. Kim 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 Russell Capone, Kan M. Nawaday, and Lauren B. Schorr are in charge of the prosecution.

The charges contained in the Complaints are merely accusations and the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.

 

[1] As the introductory phrase signifies, the entirety of the text of the Complaints and the descriptions of the Complaints set forth herein constitute only allegations, and every fact described should be treated as an allegation.

Updated April 25, 2017