Policing the police: Is the NYPD the solution – or the problem?
With the arrest of Norman Seabrook, the former president of New York City’s Correction Officers Benevolent Association, on federal corruption charges, a broader Department of Justice probe enters a more tumultuous phase that will continue to rock the political world – and law enforcement – well into next year.
The case against Seabrook came out of a multi-faceted two-year probe by the FBI and the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau into the behavior of high ranking NYPD officers and their dealings with two major donors to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s campaign.
As the sprawling investigation continues, the number high-ranking active duty and retired NYPD officers that have surfaced is spurring serious questions about the police department’s ability to police itself.
Nick Casale, a former NYPD detective who served as the confidential aide to the chief of department, the highest ranking NYPD officer, said the fact that so many senior commanders are under a cloud is an indictment of the Internal Affairs Bureau, the unit within the department tasked with investigating police corruption.
"In a post 9-11 world, you have to see internal corruption in any police organization as the soft underbelly vulnerable to a terrorism conspiracy," Casale told City & State. "Anything that erodes internal security or public integrity is way in for the bad guys."
Casale argues that the corruption within the ranks is “a learned behavior.” “Chiefs see inspectors do it. Lieutenants see captains do it and patrolman see sergeants do it. It’s a cancer.” However, he said, “there’s been a double standard between how the rank and file police officer is treated versus how the bosses are handled.”
Calling the problems facing the NYPD’s upper echelon “historic,” Casale said that the situation was so grave that Commissioner William Bratton “should seriously consider stepping down.”
Bratton’s defenders maintain that the current investigations are a result of the commissioner’s reform of the Internal Affairs Bureau, or the IAB, which includes a major shift away from minor infractions like parking violations and towards rooting out the kind of systemic corruption that’s come to light during Bratton’s tenure under de Blasio.
Several attempts to get an on-the-record response from the NYPD were unsuccessful, although the department’s press office did provide historical figures requested by City & State.
At a recent press conference to highlight the NYPD’s continued success at reducing violent crime this year, de Blasio had high praise for the work of the NYPD's Internal Affairs Bureau. "There's been a vigorous investigation that obviously yielded some real problems and those individuals are already feeling the consequences," de Blasio told reporters. "I wouldn't be surprised if they felt a lot more.”
Pressed about the fact that several of high-ranking officers that have been named are being permitted to retire with their benefits fully intact, the mayor said that the officers “have a right to retire,” adding, “I don’t think that in any way this undermines our discipline efforts.”
Chief of Department James O’Neill told reporters that the steady stream of bad press had consequences within the agency. “So is it having an impact on morale?” O’Neill asked. “I am sure it does.”
Sources close to Ray Kelly, Bratton’s predecessor as police commissioner, defended his record and raised questions about Bratton’s significant cutbacks on the number of officers assigned to IAB. These sources did not want to go in the record, but maintained that Bratton’s “going soft” on integrity testing was just one of several efforts to build up his internal popularity within the agency.
Efforts to reach Kelly for an on the record interview through his spokesperson were unsuccessful. Former Chief Charles Campisi, who led IAB under Kelly and is now retired, declined to comment, noting that he never speaks about ongoing investigations.
Seabrook is charged with placing $20 million of his union’s money with Platinum Partners, a hedge fund, in exchange for $60,000 in cash. Prosecutors say that cash infusion helped keep Platinum afloat, even as wealthy investors looking to exit the troubled fund were prevented from withdrawing their money.
At his first court appearance the ever flamboyant Seabrook dismissed the charges as mere allegations, and afterward he told reporters, “I feel like a million bucks.” The union's executive committee promptly ousted Seabrook, ending his 21-year tenure, and selected COBA First Vice President Elias Husamudeen as his replacement, as required by the union's by-laws.
No doubt, Seabrook, a charismatic and powerful union leader, knows a lot about how power politics has been played in New York City for the last 20 years. The thought that his liberty is at stake should give the political class high anxiety.
Historically, leaders of the city's major municipal unions often project a larger than life persona. They are paid six-figures, rarely drive their own car and are members of the city's political elite. In Seabrook's case, that swagger also came from his status as a corrections officer. (He was suspended after his arrest.)
So far, what the public has witnessed in the wave of successful political corruption cases brought by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has been the prosecution of political power brokers, like former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former state Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos.
What’s new, and perhaps most troubling, about this wave of federal corruption cases centering around de Blasio donors Jona Rechnitz and Jeremy Reichberg, is evidence that the kind of corruption in pay-to-play politics has metastasized into the highest echelons of the NYPD.
As donors to de Blasio’s campaign, Rechnitz and Reichberg secured high-profile spots on the prestigious de Blasio inaugural committee list. Ironically, they were right next to each other in alphabetical order, sandwiched between Diane Ravitch, a former assistant U.S. secretary of education, and actress Susan Sarandon.
No doubt, the tens of thousands of dollars donated by the two businessmen to de Blasio’s cause was a great investment in raising their profile. It put them on the same list as luminaries like Steve Buscemi, Sarah Jessica Parker, Rosie Perez and Harry Belafonte.
But as has been widely reported, Rechnitz and Reichberg also were the behind the money that financed another “crew” that brought together Seabrook, former NYPD Chief of Department Philip Banks and several other high-ranking NYPD officers. By bankrolling trips to places like Israel, the Dominican Republic and Las Vegas, the two civilians cultivated personal relations with top law enforcement figures.
Up until his high-profile resignation in 2014, Banks was as the chief of the department, the highest ranking uniformed officer at the NYPD. But he abruptly resigned after he was offered a promotion by Bratton, the new commissioner. The move was seen as a major blow to the de Blasio administration’s efforts to build on the work of Kelly, who has already established the NYPD as a national model for diversity in its ranks.
At the time of his exit, Banks tweeted to his followers that he was leaving for “professional reasons.” Reports suggested that as a hands-on crime fighter, Banks’ new role as conceived by Bratton would be removed from the action.
Anonymous law enforcement sources have been quoted in the press as saying that both Rechnitz and Reichberg got special favors, including police escorts for commercial enterprises and special security provisions for social events linked to the de Blasio donors and the Jewish Orthodox community in Brooklyn. According to the reports, ranking officers got trips and diamonds in return.
Banks and several of the ranking officers, whose names have surfaced in connection with the roiling scandal, represent hundreds of years of service.
Specifics, however, have been elusive up until the Seabrook case. In that case, the charging documents filed with the court allege that a cooperating witness, referred to as “CW-1,” has already pleaded guilty for his role in the Platinum Partners scheme, “among other things,” and “is providing information to the government in the hope of obtaining leniency when he is sentenced.”
Those same Department of Justice filings refer to an unnamed co-conspirator, abbreviated as “CC-1,” who participated in the cash for investment placement bribery scheme, “among other things.”
Multiple outlets have reported that the cooperating witness is Rechnitz and that the unnamed co-conspirator is Reichberg, his fellow de Blasio donor.
Also in the prosecution’s filings is the disclosure that in 2013 an unnamed “NYPD Officer” introduced Seabrook to “CW-1,” who has been identified as Rechnitz. “In November of 2013, CW-1 and CC-1, Seabrook and the NYPD Officer traveled to the Dominican Republic. The airfare was paid for by CW-1 and not reimbursed,” according to the Seabrook criminal complaint.
In April, when the Rechnitz-Reichberg scandal hit the papers, it was reported that Rechnitz, Reichberg, Seabrook and Banks were traveling companions to the Dominican Republic and Israel. A widely published 2014 photo shows Banks in his NYPD uniform next to Norman Seabrook, and Rechnitz and Reichberg at Jerusalem’s Western Wall. But common trips abroad are not the only link between Banks and Rechnitz.
The Daily News also reported in April that in 2014, when Banks had retired after turning down Bratton’s promotion, Banks updated his filings with the city’s Conflict of Interest Board to declare extra income ranging between $250,000 and $499,000 from JSR Capital, Rechnitz’s real estate development company.
Prior to that, Banks was paid a $200,000 NYPD salary, as well as somewhere between $250,000 and $499,000 by a professional training company that coaches police officers on their promotion exams.
When word of the outside income from Rechnitz’s firm surfaced, Banks’ attorney Ben Brafman denied that the income reflected anything improper.
“Despite all that has been printed and reported about Phil Banks, I repeat: Not one single dollar earned by Mr. Banks while a member of the PD or subsequent to his retirement, is any way related to illegal or corrupt activities,” Brafman told the Daily News. “All of the money invested by him or on deposit in his accounts is derived from lawfully earned income and his wife’s inheritance after her father passed away.”
Banks’ NYPD supporters say the former top ranking uniformed officer is being “smeared” as a political payback, but they don’t want to be quoted by name. A former high-ranking NYPD official said Banks was known to be “entrepreneurial,” but he was a man of integrity.
Banks has not been charged with any crimes. Nor has his name surfaced in any of the court filings related to the cases already underway reviewed by City & State, including the one that prompted the arrest of a member of a Borough Park Jewish Orthodox civilian safety patrol for allegedly bribing members of the NYPD to issue dozens of permits to carry a concealed handgun.
In April, the FBI and the NYPD arrested Alex Lichtenstein, a member of a Borough Park Shomrim, an unarmed neighborhood crime watch patrol. The charging papers said that Lichtenstein had told an undercover NYPD officer that with the help of other NYPD officers the safety patrol volunteer had sold 150 gun permits.
At the time of the arrest announcement, FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge Diego Rodriquez said the alleged bribery scheme “allowed a man to obtain a gun who made a threat against someone’s life,” adding, “It’s further alarming that Lichtenstein bragged about beating the system and potentially put the general public in danger.”
Bratton said that the case came out of “a long-term joint investigation” by the IAB, the FBI, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “As we have previously stated, this investigation will continue to go where the leads take us,” Bratton said.
In the charging documents, government prosecutors outlined how the defendant was almost a daily visitor to One Police Plaza, where the NYPD’s licensing division is based. The criminal complaint only identifies the NYPD members allegedly involved in the conspiracy as “deputy inspector,” “sergeant 1,” and “officer 3.”
In an email to City & State, Banks’ lawyer Ben Brafman vigorously defended his client.
“I do not believe that former Chief Banks is a target of any criminal investigation, nor do I believe that he ever intentionally violated the law,” Brafman said. “He served with distinction throughout his career and his retirement more than a year ago had nothing whatsoever to do with any investigation.”
In remarks to the New York Post editorial board in April, Bratton compared the current investigation that is reaching into the NYPD’s top leadership to a groundbreaking commission in the 1970s that documented systemic corruption within the NYPD.
“You’d have to go back to the Knapp Commission days to find one that has that focus on the senior leadership of the department,” Bratton said.
Sensational tabloid accounts of a private jets flight from New Jersey to Las Vegas paid for by Rechnitz included the disclosure that high-ranking NYPD officers had sex with a prostitute while the jet was in flight.
Last month Bratton said in a radio interview that the behavior under investigation in some circumstances might be considered criminal and in others only violations of conflict of interest rules and regulations.
“Plane trips and hotel rooms and unfortunately, in one circumstance, providing of prostitutes, that clearly goes beyond anything that’s permissible,” Bratton told radio host John Gambling. Bratton also said the NYPD was working on improving upper management’s grasp of subtler issues surrounding conflicts of interest, noting that other situations can be “less red line.”
On April 7, Bratton issued his first official statement that confirmed the existence of the internal criminal corruption probe, but little else. “The potential violations under investigation include violations of NYPD rules and policies, the City conflicts of interest rules and the federal criminal laws,” Bratton said. “The investigation is examining the conduct of current and former NYPD Officers and several others.”
In the same statement, Bratton did disclose that the IAB had opened an investigation in late 2013 and that in early 2014 the unit joined an ongoing FBI and DOJ probe. Bratton said that as a result of the investigation, Deputy Chief Michael Harrington, Deputy Inspector James Grant, Deputy Chief David Colon and Deputy Chief Eric Rodruiguez were being transferred. Harrington and Grant had to also surrender their badge and gun.
A day after Bratton went public, Bharara announced the arrest of Hamlet Peralta, 36, in Macon, Georgia. Peralta, a Bronx resident, was the operator of the now-defunct Hudson River Cafe at West 133rd Street, just a couple of blocks from the Hudson River in Harlem.
The spot, which closed in 2015, had been a favorite with high-ranking officers like Banks and was a social nexus for NYPD officials and de Blasio donors Reichberg and Rechnitz.
Prosecutors allege that starting in July of 2013, Peralta masterminded a Ponzi scheme to defraud $12 million from a dozen investors who thought they were investing in a wholesale liquor business. Multiple outlets have identified Rechnitz, Reichberg and one police officer among the investors, while a second officer is alleged to have steered potential investors to Peralta. Peralta has pleaded not guilty.
None of the officers whose names have surfaced in NYPD command discipline announcements has been charged with any crime, and yet some observers say that the department’s actions are being used in media reports as a kind of substantiation of wrongdoing that should be tried in court under transparent due process, not in the newspapers.
“At this point all that’s been printed is allegations,” Roy Richter, president of the Captain’s Endowment Association, told City & State. “Nobody has retired with administrative charges pending against them or have been told they are a target of a criminal probe.”
The CEA represents about 750 NYPD captains, deputy inspectors, inspectors, deputy chiefs and surgeons. Four of the CEA’s board of directors have either been disciplined by the NYPD or had their name surface in press accounts on the ongoing criminal probe.
Last month, NYPD Inspector Michael Ameri, 44, and a member of CEA’s board of directors, drove just a few miles from his home to the Bergen Point Golf Course in West Babylon in his department-issued vehicle and fatally shot himself in the head.
DNAinfo reported that Ameri had been interviewed by investigators who were looking into details surrounding police escorts he provided Reichberg when he was serving at a precinct that included Borough Park, the predominately Orthodox Jewish neighborhood where Reichberg lived.
After Ameri’s death, de Blasio offered his personal condolences and an NYPD spokesman told reporters that Ameri was actually cooperating with the investigation and was not a target.
At the time of his death, Ameri was the commander of the NYPD Highway Patrol Unit and had served as the former commander of the 78th precinct in Park Slope, de Blasio’s home district. In 2014 Bratton promoted Ameri, and he also spearheaded de Blasio’s Vision Zero program to reduce traffic fatalities.
After his death, local community groups in the Brooklyn precinct he commanded named a bike lane after Ameri. “He brought the NYPD and this community together in a strong and powerful way,” City Councilman Brad Lander said at the dedication ceremony.
Patrick Lynch, the president of the Patrolment’s Benevolent Association, says the spate of NYPD scandals is a legacy issue that has to do with what he calls “white shirt immunity,” referring to the shirt color worn by higher ranking police officials.
“In the process for discipline, we want fairness,” Lynch told City & State. “What we have seen over the years is there will be the same infraction for a police officer and a boss who wears the white shirt. The boss gets off much more leniently than the police officer.”
Lynch says he does approve of Bratton efforts to refocus the IAB on serious corruption. Under the previous administration, “if you parked illegally they would tow your car or if you used (a police) plaque improperly they would tow your car and discipline you,” Lynch said. “While internal affairs should be robust, it should always be going after real corruption.”
Eugene O’Donnell, an assistant professor at John Jay College who was a member of the NYPD and then went on to work as a prosecutor, says that in recent years the commissioner’s office has itself become to glamorized and tied to closely with the wealthy and powerful.
Both Kelly and Bratton have been sought after as celebrities, O’Connell noted, and are befriended by celebrities in ostentatious and luxurious settings like the Harvard Club where the velvet rope “A list” congregates.
“A terrible tone has been set at the top. It’s unseemly,” O’Donnell said. “There is nothing wrong with a police commissioner being home at 6:30 p.m.”
Walter Mack recounted his time as an IAB deputy commissioner from 1993 to 1995 under Kelly. At the time the city was rocked by disclosures by the Mollen Commission that the NYPD was in the grips of pervasive corruption. As the New York Times reported at the time, the department “had failed at every level to uproot corruption and had instead tolerated a culture that fostered misconduct and concealed lawlessness by police officers.”
“Every agency protects its own, so you have to have someone in there who just doesn’t care about being popular and can set an example,” Mack told City & State. “You just can’t have the white shirts acting in violation of the patrol guide. You can’t have a double standard. Don’t be surprised if the people below you don’t comport with ethical standards if you yourself don’t follow them.”