NEW YORK (AP) — A corruption probe at the New York Police Department has cast a harsh light on how people get handgun permits in a city that boasts some of the nation's toughest gun laws.
Federal prosecutors say a shady fixer's cash bribes induced officers working in NYPD's licensing division to rubber-stamp dozens of gun applications, circumventing stringent background checks intended to weed out candidates with criminal records, mental health problems and other red flags. The potential public safety breach comes amid a national debate over whether easy access to weapons fueled the Orlando massacre and other mass shootings.
"We don't want guns getting into the wrong hands, and we have officers of the law facilitating that process," said Leah Gunn Barrett, executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence. "That is not a good situation."
The New York investigation caught Alex "Shaya" Lichtenstein, a volunteer safety patrol member in his Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, on tape bragging that he had obtained at least 150 licenses for people to carry guns by paying up to $6,000 in bribes for each weapon.
The bribes were covered by fees of $10,000 or more paid by clients who in turn saw their applications to carry a handgun approved in two months or less — compared to as long as a year in normal circumstances — while other clients saw their criminal histories ignored.
Investigators say one person got a permit despite being arrested for bribing a public official and for assault. Another license holder was arrested on a forgery charge and was the subject of domestic violence complaints, including one involving a death threat.
Lichtenstein "was no less than an arms dealer for the community," a federal prosecutor said at an arraignment last month when Lichtenstein pleaded not guilty to charges including conspiracy to commit bribery.
Two police officers who worked in the licensing division were also arrested in the bribery scheme — part of a broader, ongoing corruption case that has roiled the nation's largest police department.
Last week, two high-ranking NYPD commanders were charged with accepting $100,000 in bribes including free flights, hotel rooms and prostitutes in exchange for favors like police escorts, ticket fixing and getting gun license applications for corrupt businessmen.
The revelations have prompted the NYPD to so far revoke 79 gun permits of the roughly 260 that came under suspicion because of the corruption probe. Police also are reviewing ways to further tighten regulations for a system that processes thousands of new applications, as well as renewals for the 37,000 permits already in circulation.
Most of the applications are for permits to keep a gun at home. But a small percentage are from people seeking to carry handguns while working or at all times for personal safety — a request that triggers a thorough background check and an investigation into whether their safety concerns are legitimate.
Aside from rejecting applications based on arrest records and mental issues, the NYPD says it also disqualifies people with histories of drug abuse, domestic violence and poor driving records.
The department doesn't disclose the identities of handgun permit holders, saying only that retired law enforcement officers are a high percentage of them. But there have been reports that the rich and famous have gotten its permission to pack heat.
A website for John Chambers, a New York City lawyer who's part of a cottage industry of legitimate gun permit expediters, boasts that his clients include a best-selling author, a billionaire businessman, a radio personality and a movie star, along with liquor store owners, jewelers and strip club operators.
Chambers called the case a shocking "aberration" for a licensing division he has dealt with for decades.
"It's going to hurt the law-abiding citizen, but it's almost not the fault of the government," he said. "It's these criminal cops and Shaya."
Lichtenstein, he said, was a constant presence at the division offices.
"Every time I was there, he was there. ... I think it got out of control," he said.
Court papers say that behind the scenes, Lichtenstein bragged he had gamed the system so well that his connections would automatically sign off on his clients' applications simply "because it's Lichtenstein."
The papers add that in another instance, while seeking to recruit an officer for the scheme, he insisted, "I'm not bribing you." But the officer wouldn't have it.
"Of course you're bribing me," he said.
Associated Press writer Larry Neumeister contributed to this report.