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U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman Speaks at Police Athletic League Business Luncheon
New York, NY 10007
United States
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Monday, October 29, 2018
PAL Lunch

 

Thank you for having me.  It is a great privilege to speak with all of you today, and wonderful to be joined by so many dignitaries, colleagues, and members of the business and philanthropic communities.

First, I’d like to recognize Bob Morgenthau and thank him for inviting me to speak today.  His legacy at the Southern District and Manhattan DAs Office is enormous.  He is truly an icon of law enforcement, and every day I pass his portrait I am inspired.

I’d also like to recognize NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill; Bill Sweeney, Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s New York Field Office; John Brosnan, the Special Agent in Charge of the Criminal Division for the New York Field Office; and of course, my good friend Cy Vance,

And what a privilege it is, especially after this past week, to be here with the Police Athletic League, the NYPD, the FBI and so many of our first responders and law enforcement partners who protect our community every day.

Last Monday an explosive device was mailed to the home of George Soros.  This was followed by other explosive devices mailed to President Obama, President Clinton, Former First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and several other present and former high-ranking federal officials.

And on Friday, 11 innocents were massacred while worshipping at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

This has been a Septimana Horribilis—a terrible and hateful week.

Yet, because of the federal, state and local law enforcement organizations represented here today, as well as our law enforcement colleagues throughout the country, the individuals who committed these horrific acts were apprehended promptly.

On Monday, after the first explosive device was discovered, the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force, the NYPD, my office, and dozens of other federal state and local law enforcement organizations sprang into action.

Law enforcement safely recovered at least 13 packages, and by Friday of last week – within just five days – we had identified, located, arrested, and charged Cesar Sayok.  Sayok will be presented this afternoon before a magistrate judge in Miami, and he will face justice in the Southern District of New York.

And the carnage in Pittsburgh might have been worse if local police had not responded and raced to neutralize the shooter – resulting in 3 police officers themselves being shot, and one injured.

I want to add my voice to those of everyone here, who I know will keep the officers in our prayers as well as the victims and their families. 

This past week reminds us that we are all kindred spirits.  And that our partnerships with each other and the communities we serve are paramount.

And it is that sentiment of partnership and serving the community that has driven PAL’s work for years.

The breadth and quality of the work that PAL does for our city’s children is inspiring. 

Preparing these remarks, I was gratified to learn that the rate of college acceptance for students participating in PAL’s In-School Training and Employment Program is more than 30% higher than the national rate. 

It is difficult to overstate that achievement and its impact.

It’s not just the children themselves going to college.  This impacts the parents and the siblings of every one of those kids.  And it impacts the families that those kid will have, possibly for generations.

I was also pleased to learn that 93% of PAL Teen Center youth who interact with police officers report that their outlook towards law enforcement has improved. 

Bridging the trust gap between law enforcement and the communities we serve is something prosecutors in my office think about a lot.

As everyone here in law enforcement knows, our work suffers when members of the public are reluctant to come forward with information because they don’t trust the authorities. 

Without the help of community members, we can’t solve murders or expel gang members from apartment complexes. 

So on behalf of all of the prosecutors in my office, I want to thank you for these efforts and everything else you do for the city’s children and young adults.

I’d like to use this opportunity to speak about two issues I prioritized during my first year as U.S. Attorney—because of their impact on New York City families and specifically because of their impact on the kids and young adults involved with PAL’s activities—and describe some of the actions we are taking to address them.

These two issues are the Opioid Crisis and the New York City Housing Authority, or NYCHA.  I’ll begin with the Opioid Crisis. 

It’s no secret that we are in the middle of an opioid epidemic of grave proportions.

According to the CDC, 134 Americans die every day, on average, from an opioid overdose.  It’s widely estimated that these opioid-related deaths have actually lowered the average life expectancy in the United States for two years in a row.

And New York has been hard hit by this epidemic.  According to the City’s Department of Health, in 2017 almost 1,500 people in New York City alone died of drug overdoses, more than half involving opioids.

These numbers convey the urgent nature of this crisis, but they utterly fail to capture the human toll—the heartache, pain, and grief—that an overdose death inflicts on families who have lost loved ones.  The numbers also fail to capture the pain and suffering of those addicted, and the toll on the family members of those addicted. 

This public health crisis is as daunting as it gets.  But my Office, especially the Narcotics Unit, is attacking the problem in innovative ways, from every angle, and making a difference.

Several months ago we launched our Overdose Death Initiative.

Under this initiative, we are treating every overdose death as a potential crime scene—investigating it just as we would a murder—with the hope that we can bring death-resulting charges against the individuals who supplied the drugs. 

These death-resulting charges, which carry a mandatory-minimum sentence of 20 years, send a clear and resolute message to those that consider peddling this poison on our streets.

Earlier this summer, in the first trial from this initiative, we convicted a prolific and feared Staten Island drug dealer for selling heroin to his childhood friend who tragically overdosed and died. 

This convicted dealer now faces at least 20 years in prison, and we have many similar cases, some involving dark web transactions, in the pipeline.

Of course, street-level drug dealers are just part of the problem. 

Another driver of this opioid epidemic has been a prescription epidemic.  

Certain doctors are selling prescriptions for oxycodone and other addictive painkillers to people they know have no medical need for those drugs.  These quote unquote patients are filling their prescriptions and selling the pills on the street. 

Doctors – who take an oath to care for their patients – should be the first line of defense against opioid abuse: never the cause.

That is why we have invested significant resources into a developing a one-of-a-kind New York State-wide opioid prescription database.

This dataset contains over 14 million prescriptions from almost 100,000 providers filled at over 15,000 unique pharmacies over the last five years.  And already we using this database to help identify doctors that are diverting these highly addictive pills.

Earlier this month, we arrested five doctors, one pharmacist, one registered nurse, and others on oxycodone distribution charges.

As charged in the indictment, one of these doctors, Dr. Cubangbang and his nurse practitioner, who operated out of a purported pain clinic in Queens, prescribed more than six million oxycodone pills in exchange for over $5 million in cash. 

In fact, according to Medicare and Medicaid, this doctor was the highest prescriber of oxycodone in the entire state.

We look forward to taking this case to trial and laying bare for the medical community this simple truth: a license to practice medicine is not a grant of immunity.

Another doctor charged, Dr. Pietropinto was a practicing Psychiatrist on 5th Avenue in Manhattan.  He did not specialize in pain management. 

Yet he prescribed oxycodone to approximately 214 patients.  Over a five year period, he wrote prescriptions for over 600,000 oxycodone 30 milligram pills – generally the highest dosage of oxy available.  He prescribed one patient over 12,000 oxycodone pills – or approximately 7 tablets a day.

He wrote prescriptions to people he knew had no legitimate medical need for it – including to people who had just been released from rehab or were incarcerated.

Two of his patients overdosed on drugs during the period in which he prescribed them oxycodone. 

Another doctor, Dr. Anderson had his office in Staten Island.  He only saw patients in the middle of the night, prescribing opioids under cover of darkness.  It was not uncommon for crowds of people to form outside his office at 3 or 4 in the morning, prompting 911 calls from neighbors.

Tragically, several of Dr. Anderson’s former patients overdosed and died, including two of his employees.

We also charged a pharmacist, Marc Klein, who ran a pharmacy in Long Island, where he filled hundreds of medically unnecessary prescriptions for large quantities of oxycodone.

In exchange for filling these sham prescriptions, Klein received cash payments, free meals, and an all-expense-paid trip to Atlantic City.

When confronted by one of his employees about his practices, Klein was brazen.  He stated, “I guess you could call us licensed drug dealers,” and added that “oxy pays the bills around here.”

This recent takedown follows many other cases we’ve charged targeting medical professionals.

In March, we indicted five doctors for accepting bribes and kickbacks from a pharmaceutical company in exchange for prescribing a fentanyl spray.

This fentanyl spray is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.  The FDA approved this highly addictive and potent spray only to treat pain in cancer patients.  Yet the doctors we indicted were induced to prescribe the spray in exchange for so-called speaker fees from the company making the spray. 

One doctor received approximately $308,600 in speaker fees in exchange for prescribing large volumes of fentanyl spray.  

These cases illustrate our multi-pronged attack on this dreadful epidemic.  

And I’m pleased to report that these cases, and others like them, are having an impact.  Opioid prescriptions are down significantly over the past two years.  Also, preliminary numbers for 2018 suggest that nationwide opioid deaths are stabilizing or possibly even decreasing.

A second issue that I have prioritized as U.S. Attorney is addressing the unacceptable and illegal conditions in NYCHA apartment buildings.

In my view, there is no case of greater size, scope, or impact on our docket.

Over 400,000 people live in NYCHA housing – that’s one out of every 14 New Yorkers.

Earlier this summer, my Office’s Civil Division completed a two-year investigation into NYCHA facilities and practices—and the results were horrendous.

NYCHA residents have had to live in apartments with peeling and uninspected lead paint, out of control mold, no heat in the winter, broken elevators and infestations of pests and vermin.  Tragically, more than 800 children living in NYCHA housing have tested positive for levels of lead deemed of concern by the CDC.

Also upsetting are the extraordinary lengths NYCHA went to in order cover up these deficiencies. 

NYCHA repeatedly certified falsely that it was in compliance with lead paint safety regulations and other HUD requirements when it was not. 

NYCHA would routinely deceive HUD building inspectors.  They would move flammable materials outside of a building until an inspection was over. 

They would turn off water in a building so the inspector could not see leaks. 

In at least one instance, workers temporarily installed a refrigerator motor in an inoperative roof fan to convince an inspector the building had proper ventilation.

Fortunately, we were able to reach an agreement in the form of a Consent Decree with NYCHA and the City, which is currently pending approval before the district court.  The consent decree provides for a strong monitor with the mandate and authority to reform NYCHA and ensure that the capital improvements that need to be done are accomplished.

Under the Consent Decree, the City has agreed to pay $1 billion over four years and $200 million per year thereafter indefinitely to fix these problems.  In total, there will be $4 billion over four years for capital improvements. 

The monitor will establish priorities and develop action plans and can direct NYCHA to hire outside contractors; and if NYCHA won’t hire the contractors, the monitor can apply to the court for permission to enter into the agreement itself.

There is no more important case in my Office than NYCHA.  And I was surprised to read what Stan Brezenoff, NYCHA’s chairman and signatory to our Consent Decree, said a few weeks ago.

At a Citizens Budget Commission event in early October, he said: “I have some trouble with this proposed monitorship because it’s much more actively constructed, where there’s more of a management role, at least in vision.  And I think it is a prescription for difficulty, if not disaster”

Candidly, the real disaster is the management at NYCHA and its culture of deception. Mr. Brezenoff should be getting on board with the monitorship he signed off on.

I am going to wrap up now, but before I do I want to thank you again for all the good work you do through PAL and all the kids you help.  Your good work ripples well beyond the individual kids, to their families and their future families and the greater community.

And I again want to thank our law enforcement partners in the audience.  Partnering with you has made my job so much more enriching and my office so much more productive.

In closing, I’ll say this:  Tolerance of political, racial, and religious differences is a central component, perhaps the most important component, of our social contract.  So the hateful attacks of the past week were a direct assault on our democracy.

I am grateful to have colleagues in this room and around the country who understand the strength that comes from diversity and stand ready to protect our nation from those who threaten our basic values.  Thank you.

Updated November 1, 2018