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NYPD officers charged in gun license bribery scheme, prosecutors say

Ex-NYPD Sgt. David Villanueva leaves the federal courthouse

Ex-NYPD Sgt. David Villanueva leaves the federal courthouse in Manhattan on June 20, 2016, after being arraigned on bribery charges. Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

A trio of former cops and a former assistant district attorney were charged on Tuesday in a scheme where they took bribes like cash, vacations and prostitutes in exchange for pushing through gun licenses, federal prosecutors said.

Former Lt. Paul Dean, 44, from Wantagh, New York, who ran the day-to-day operations of the NYPD’s firearm license division from Nov. 2014 to Nov. 2015, was charged in Manhattan federal court with two counts of conspiracy to commit bribery and one count of extortion. Two other officers, Robert Espinel and Gaetano Valstro, were hit with similar charges.

The move comes as part of an ongoing NYPD corruption investigation.

Dean, along with several others, allegedly accepted bribes like cash — sometimes stuck into magazines — vacations and prostitutes from gun license expediters to move applications along and approve more than 100 licenses. Anyone can become a gun expediter and does not require a license, officials said.

In one instance, a license was approved for someone who had prior convictions for criminal possession of a weapon and assault, said Acting Manhattan U.S. Attorney Joon Kim. In another, he said, a man with four domestic violence complaints against him, including one in which he allegedly threatened to kill someone, was issued a license.

“They allegedly sold their oath to serve and protect,” said Kim, speaking at the U.S. attorney’s office. “They sold their duty to do their jobs.”

Dean and Robert Espinel — who was assigned to the license division from 2011 until he retired last year — decided to make more money by retiring and getting into the expediting business themselves, Kim said.

“They offered to give a piece of the action to their colleagues who would still be at the license division, telling one colleague that his wife should buy a shovel to scoop up all the money they were going to make,” Kim said.

Police Commissioner James O’Neill said 100 licenses were suspended during the investigation and hundreds more are under review. He said several preventive measures have been implemented, including replacing all of the supervisory staff in the division.

“We have a duty to explain where your public servants went wrong, what our investigation uncovered and how we can prevent similar acts from happening again,” he said. “By and large every cop that I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with takes the job for the right reasons so for something like this to happen ... it’s absolutely appalling.”

As part of the same investigation, David Villanueva, a former NYPD sergeant assigned to the license division, pled guilty in February 2017 to bribery, conspiracy and making false statements.

Frank Soohoo, a gun license expediter, pled guilty to conspiracy, bribery, making false statements and mail fraud in October 2016.

Both Villanueva and Sohoo have agreed to cooperate with the government as part of their guilty pleas, according to the U.S. Attorney's office.

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