Federal officials Monday unsealed corruption charges against four NYPD officers and two businessmen linked to Mayor Bill de Blasio, popping the lid off an explosive scandal in which top cops allegedly got payoffs and prostitutes to provide help ranging from gun licenses and police escorts to closing a Lincoln Tunnel lane.
In the most dramatic case, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara accused Deputy Chief Michael Harrington, former second-in-command to the chief of department, and Dep. Inspector James Grant, a former precinct commander in Manhattan and Brooklyn, of taking bribes worth more than $100,000 from two Brooklyn investors over three years.
The two commanders allegedly got jewelry, meals, prime sports tickets, travel benefits and even Christmas visits from the two Orthodox businessmen dressed as elves to deliver the pricey gifts. In return the commanders allegedly provided siren-and-lights escorts, VIP treatment at events like the New York marathon and help in business disputes on an “as needed basis.”
One businessman, Jeremy Reichberg, was charged with conspiracy along with Grant and Harrington. The other, a cooperating witness who has pleaded guilty, was not named but was identified by Reichberg’s lawyer as Jona Rechnitz. Both have been linked to federal probes of de Blasio’s fundraising.
“They spent well over $100,000,” Bharara said at a news conference. “They got in effect a private police force for their friends and themselves. They got police on-call.”
In addition to Grant and Harrington, the government also unsealed an indictment accusing gun licensing division sergeant David Villanueva of taking bribes for permits from Alex Lichtenstein, a previously charged member of a private Orthodox security patrol in Brooklyn who was also indicted Monday.
As a result of bribes, permits were allegedly issued to individuals with records for domestic violence, forgery and bribing a public official. Another unsealed complaint accused Richard Ochetal, a licensing officer, of taking bribes in the scheme. Ochetal secretly pleaded guilty last week and is cooperating with the government, a source said.
With highly publicized probes of political corruption in city and state government ongoing, Bharara said Monday’s charges were particularly sobering.
“When corruption subverts public safety, that is especially hard to take,” he said. “It makes people wonder whether those entrusted to protect and serve them are in fact doing that.”
NYPD Commissioner William Bratton said the department had played a part in uncovering the wrongdoing, and the charges weren’t comparable to the massive scandal exposed by the Knapp Commission a generation ago.
“What we are not seeing here is a malaise where corruption is ignored . . . or covered up,” Bratton said. “We see an aggressive system that worked here.”
Harrington, 50, and Grant, 43, both of Staten Island, Villanueva, 42, of Valley Stream, and Reichberg, 42, of Borough Park, were arrested Monday morning and released on bail after brief appearances in court. Afterward, they walked to waiting cars while uniformed police kept reporters away.
Reichberg has identified himself as a “community liaison” and a “fix-it guy” with the NYPD, according to the complaint. Among other favors, he allegedly got NYPD help with a gun permit, police assistance at religious events, and NYPD intervention in a private dispute between a jewelry store owned by a friend and a rival.
The government said he also got help on tickets — on one occasion fixing a ticket for a friend who police said was “blowing red lights” and “driving like a lunatic” — and on another occasion was able to get police to close off a lane in the Lincoln Tunnel and use it to escort a businessman visiting the U.S. into the city.
Reichberg’s highest-level contact was Harrington, the deputy to former Chief of Department Philip Banks. The complaint said Reichberg and his associate — identified by Reichberg’s attorney as Rechnitz — bought expensive meals for Banks, identified as “Chief-1,” and hoped his office could be a “one-stop shop” for NYPD favors. But Banks wasn’t charged, and Bharara declined to discuss him.
Prosecutors said that emails, wiretaps and cooperating witnesses indicated Harrington was treated to expensive $400 to $500 dinners twice a week in 2013 and 2014, and was given pricey Rangers and Nets tickets, free hotel rooms on a trip to Chicago, and a video game system on Christmas of 2013.
Reichberg, the government said, also funneled money to Harrington through a family security company, and in return, Harrington used his authority in the NYPD to facilitate arrests, and on one occasion, discipline a cop working security for a business competing with a Reichberg associate.
Grant, the complaint said, was flown to Las Vegas on Super Bowl weekend in 2013 by private jet for $59,000, and provided with a complimentary room at a hotel and a prostitute to fly out and stay with him.
Reichberg also allegedly paid for a luxury hotel in Rome for a Grant family trip, $6,000 in work on his house and a $3,000 watch, and delivered jewelry for Grant’s wife and a video game system for his kids while dressed with Rechnitz as elves on Christmas of 2013.
Those payoffs later became a sore spot when they weren’t repeated in 2014. Grant, the government said, complained to Reichberg on a wiretapped call in January 2015, that he had taken another official to the Super Bowl.
“The two elves didn’t come for (expletive) Christmas,” Grant allegedly added.
Bratton said that Harrington, Grant and Villanueva have all been suspended, and that Harrington and Grant have put in retirement papers to keep their benefits intact. He said Ochetal, 37, has been placed on modified duty.
Villanueva pleaded not guilty. The other two did not enter pleas, but their lawyers said they would fight the charges. Harrington lawyer Andrew Weinstein called him a “straight arrow” and said the accusations were “politically motivated.” Grant’s lawyer John Meringolo said his client did “nothing unlawful.”
Reichberg’s lawyer Susan Necheles said his “only mistake was his friendship with Jona Rechnitz . . . who is desperately trying to get others in trouble to curry favor with prosecutors.”
In response, Alan Levine, a lawyer for Rechnitz, said the new charges showed Reichberg’s problems are “the product of his own actions,” adding, “Jeremy Reichberg is responsible for his own conduct just as Jona Rechnitz was for his.”