POMONA, N.Y. -- A 44-year-old Pomona man admitted on Thursday to his part in a bribery scheme that helped speed gun license applications through the NYPD.
Alex Lichtenstein, also known as "Shaya," pled guilty on Thursday to bribery and offering a bribe. An NYPD sergeant has also been charged in the case, and another officer has already pled guilty to accepting bribes.
"As he admitted today, Alex Lichtenstein acted as a corrupt gun 'expediter,' bribing police officers to obtain gun licenses, offering thousands of dollars per license," said Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.
In a recorded conversation, Lichtenstein bragged of using his NYPD connections to obtain 150 gun licenses. This type of corruption not only undermines public confidence in law enforcement, but it undermines public safety. And it cannot be tolerated. I thank the FBI and the NYPD for their dedication and commitment to this case and this important investigation.
According to the complaint and indictment filed in Manhattan federal court and statements made during the plea proceeding:
- Lichtenstein is a member of the Borough Park Shomrim, a volunteer, ostensibly unarmed, Orthodox Jewish patrol society whose mission includes combating criminal activity and locating missing people.
- Lichtenstein ran a business expediting clients' gun license applications, charging them up to $18,000 per license.
- This April, he approached an NYPD officer and offered him cash, if he would help obtain gun licenses from the NYPD's License Division.
- Lichtenstein told the officer that he charged customers thousands of dollars to help get their applications approved, and that he was able to get them approved using his own connections in the division, although those connections had recently cut him out.
- The officer reported the encounter to the NYPD Internal Affairs Bureau. Working with the FBI and IAB, the officer set up and recorded a meeting with Lichtenstein -- and Lichtenstein offered the officer $6,000 per application that he could help get through the division.
- Lichtenstein told the officer that he'd obtained licenses for approximately 150 people in the past, and that his customers needed his services because the division would otherwise reject applications "for the biggest stupidity," such as a history of moving violations.
- Lichtenstein boasted that he was able to use his connections to "expedite" the application process: that is, to skip the full investigation typically conducted before an application is approved. When the officer asked Lichtenstein if his previous connections were making money, Lichtenstein responded, "now they cut down, now nobody's making money."
- Lichtenstein had substantial connections to a sergeant in the License Division, David Villanueva, who had worked in the division for more than a decade. An NYPD commanding officer with whom Villanueva was friendly introduced Lichtenstein to the division and Villanueva. From that introduction through early 2016, Lichtenstein spent significant time at the division with Villanueva, often on a near-daily basis.
- From at least 2012-2016, Lichtenstein gave Villanueva cash bribes and other benefits to pay for Villanueva's work in expediting and approving applications for Lichtenstein's clients. Richard Ochetal, an officer who worked under Villanueva, did first-level review of many of these applications and was instructed to approve them.
- Ochetal was compensated in the form of some of the cash Lichtenstein gave to Villanueva.
- When Villanueva and Ochetal reviewed and approved these applications, they omitted some of the required checks, like criminal history checks, and in other cases ran checks only after they had approved licenses. They also approved applications despite red flags that, had they not been bribed, may have led those applications to be rejected.
- For example, they approved applications of individuals with prior arrests and previous allegations of domestic violence.
- Villanueva and Ochetal also approved applications for licenses to carry firearms, which require certain business-related justifications, in scenarios were there was no real business justification for the request.
- A review of the applications of Lichtenstein's clients reveals that Villanueva and Ochetal were able to secure licenses often within weeks, when the process normally takes months or even longer than a year.
- In addition to the cash payments, Lichtenstein also provided Villanueva and Ochetal with benefits including limousine rides, bottles of liquor and a wine tour.
Lichtenstein's bribery count carries a 10-year maximum prison sentence, as does the offering a bribe count. Sentencing will determined by the judge.
Villanueva has been indicted on one count of bribery and one count of conspiracy to commit bribery. The latter has a maximum 5-year prison sentence. Ochetal pled guilty to accepting bribes and is cooperating in the investigation.
Bharara praised the FBI and NYPD Internal Affairs Bureau investigations, which are ongoing. This case is being handled by the FBI's Public Corruption Unit.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Kan Nawaday, Russell Capone, Martin Bell and Lauren Schorr are in charge of the prosecution.