Embroiled in a grand jury probe of widespread NYPD ticket-fixing, the city's largest police union has hired three powerhouse lawyers to deal with the possibility that the union itself could be indicted along with some of its members.
The Patrolman's Benevolent Association has quietly added Edward McDonald, the former head of the Brooklyn U.S. Attorney's Organized Crime Strike Force who starred as himself in the movie "Goodfellas;" Thomas Fitzgerald, the former head of the Criminal Division in the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s office; and Steven Kartegener, a top criminal defense attorney who once served as head of the Bronx District Attorney’s Appeals Bureau.
The outside specialists have been added to the union's stable of in-house counsel as the PBA circles the wagons against the very real prospect of being accused of violating the state’s version of the federal Racketeering, Influence and Corruption Organization, better known as RICO, statutes.
RICO laws, as Mafia movie aficionados know, were famously created decades ago to take down crime families.
The PBA certainly isn't the mob, but if prosecutors can demonstrate that separate criminal acts — say, fixing tickets and covering up drunk driving incidents — were made by union members acting in concert, then the union could be acting like an "ongoing criminal enterprise," which is how the state law reads.
Anyone close to the investigation, or who has been reading my columns, knows there is plenty of reason for the PBA to be concerned.
A PBA delegate is awakened at home in the middle of the night and told there is a drunken off-duty NYPD cop who just slammed through two light poles and two parking meters. He then calls a delegate at the drunken officer’s precinct on the Upper East Side, who responds to the scene to get the crash cop to sign a document saying it was just an accident. The entire scenario, which made a DWI charge disappear, was laid out in a call from one of the delegates to a top union official.
In other recorded calls, the highest union official in the Bronx is heard calling fellow officers to kill a speeding ticket for Doug Behar, an official with the New York Yankees. After the ticket was canned, the union official then talked to yet another team exec, Sonny Hight, who he informs the ticket is killed and, by the way, he and his wife have tickets for the game but would would like to get into the exclusive Delta Club at Yankee Stadium.
Ironically, the cop whose alleged criminality launched the ticket probe was a former union delegate, but he was initially targeted for his ties to a drug dealer. When Internal Affairs probers heard him on his bugged barbershop phone looking to fix a ticket, the drug probe took off in a new direction.
And on it went.
Nearly 30 NYPD phones were bugged. Cops wanting to kill tickets for relatives and friends routinely turned to union delegates or trustees to get the job done. Hundreds upon hundreds of summonses were deep-sixed so casually that it seemed killing tickets was part of their job description. There was even worse conduct involving DWIs and domestic violence cover-ups. As many as two dozen officers face criminal charges, and hundreds more face internal NYPD disciplinary action.
The cumulative weight of all those tickets disappearing could fly afoul of the RICO laws. But all the prosecutors need are three separate acts to even consider bringing sanctions against the union.
Only a few people believe Bronx DA Robert Johnson lacks the fortitude to bring such charges. And, after his prosecutors lost a few recent cases when Bronx juries refused to believe testimony by cops tainted by ticket fixing, he may feel more pressure to send a strong message on behalf of his constituents.
I just heard that two highway cops who testified before the grand jury investigating ticket fixing were forced to repeatedly admit that they knew it was a felony to help kill a ticket. They testified with immunity and are not targets of the probe. So this could only be done for the grand jury to make a point about broader issues.
A half dozen union trustees also testified with immunity. Called by the prosecution, their presence can only add to the simmering feeling that the PBA could have a problem. And statements by other cop unions designed to downplay the scandal has likely not helped.
Arguing that cops have been fixing tickets as favors since the days of horses and buggies only supports the critics who claim this is an ongoing racket – and “ongoing” and “racket” are two words that the union wants to avoid.
Of course, the possibility of prosecutors even contemplating a “criminal enterprise” move has enormous implications not only for the PBA, but for all city and state labor unions who have members under the gaze of prosecutors and grand juries.
It is not something Johnson can take lightly. Any allegation could be a horror for the union leadership and extremely difficult for the NYPD and Commissioner Raymond Kelly. For the union, it could mean paying astronomical fines or, even worse, being disenfranchised.
The prospect may seem unimaginable, but the union has brought in heavy firepower. Their first outside hire was Kartegener, the former appeals bureau prosecutor who also helped the PBA score a huge victory in 1999 with the acquittal of Bronx officer Michael Meyers in the shooting death of a menacing squeegee man outside Yankee Stadium.
Sources say Kartegener recognized early on the potential issue for the union regarding the state’s "criminal enterprise" statute. He brought in Thomas Fitzgerald, the former federal prosecutor official.
McDonald, who is a friend of Patrick Lynch, the union's popular president, was the most recent legal addition. McDonald and the union declined comment.
In the 1980s, McDonald brought down mob hood Henry Hill. When director Martin Scorcese made Nick Pileggi’s book, "Wiseguy," into a movie, McDonald played himself. He appeared near the conclusion of the film discussing Hill and his wife entering the witness protection program. He famously rips into actress Lorraine Bracco, who played Hill’s whiny wife, Karen, when she balked about her need to go underground.
“Don’t give me the babe in the woods routine!” McDonald says. “I have listened to those wiretaps and I have heard you on the phone.”
McDonald did not have to say that to the union. They are not babes in the woods. They know their phones were tapped, and that the grand jury has been listening.