By Murray Weiss, Ben Fractenberg and Tom Liddy
MANHATTAN — Sixteen cops stood before a Bronx judge on Friday to face charges stemming from a widespread NYPD ticket-fixing scandal.
More than 300 cops also face disciplinary action from the department following the three-year investigation, the extent of which was exclusively reported by DNAinfo. The probe relied on extensive wiretaps that caught the cops allegedly making tickets disappear for friends, family and colleagues.
"Their misdeads tarnish the good name and reputation of the vast majority of police officers who perform their duties honestly and often at great risk to their own personal safety," NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly said at an afternoon press conference, after the 16 officers were arraigned in Bronx Criminal Court.
"We ultimately rely on the police officers' personal integrity to uphold the law."
The ticket-fixing probe was sparked in 2009 by a tip that Officer Jose Ramos, an 18-year NYPD veteran, was allegedly selling counterfeit CDs and DVDs, as well as marijuana out of his Bronx barbershop. An Internal Affairs investigation was launched, and an undercover cop who could cut hair managed to get a job at Ramos' shop, where he could keep an eye on him.
Prosecutors said that Ramos, who also served in Operation Desert Storm, allegedly committed crimes while in uniform and on duty, including accusations of stealing $30,000 from a drug dealer and transporting what he believed was heroin in his patrol car.
They also said Ramos helped alleged Queens drug dealer Lee King, who was among five civilians charged in the case Friday, obtain a fake identity, use his police placard and live in an apartment Ramos paid for.
“[Ramos] stopped caring about being a police officer a long time ago and bragged he could drive a body in a car and no one would know,” prosecutors said.
When IAB's investigation of Ramos was winding down, officials overheard him on a court-approved wiretap discussing fixing a ticket, Kelly said. From there, investigators obtained more wiretaps and uncovered the widespread ticket-fixing practice, which included cops from across the city.
Ramos, who also allegedly fixed hundreds of tickets, was held Friday on $500,000 bail.
Before the Friday morning arraignments, a sea of cops, many waving American flags, descended on the 161st Street courthouse, jamming the streets outside and cramming into the courtroom and hallways to support those who were indicted. They decried the prosecution of the officers — including two sergeants and one lieutenant — as the punishment of a mere "courtesy."
"To criminalize this is wrong," said Pat Lynch, the head of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, the city's largest police union. "In every profession, there are professional courtesies."
The 16 officers and five civilians faced hundreds of criminal counts, ranging from grand larceny and conspiracy to official misconduct. Hundreds of other officers face departmental disciplinary charges stemming from the case.
Lt. Jennara Cobb, the highest-ranking cop charged and a former Internal Affairs Bureau worker, allegedly divulged information about the wiretaps to three union officials in February 2010.
When the judge set her bail at $20,000 for a misdemeanor charge, an audible moan arose in the courtroom, which was filled with officers in and out of uniform, as well as family members of the suspects. She later posted bail and was released.
Four officers — Marc Manara, Ruben Peralta, Jeffrey Regan and Christopher Scott — were charged with covering up an assault in October 2010. They allegedly told another NYPD employee that the perpetrator was unknown, even though they knew who the suspect was, according to court documents.
Officers Eugene O’Reilly, Christopher Manzi, Brian McGuckin, Jamie Payan, Luis Rodriguez, Virgilio Bencosme, Michael Hernandez, Jason Cenizal, Joe Anthony, and Jacob Solorzano — who surrendered under the cover of darkness Thursday night — faced hundreds of counts for alleged ticket fixing. All of the officers pleaded not guilty.
Outside the courtroom, the PBA handed out a variety of placards to the throngs of cops who had gathered to support their colleagues, saying the practice was a "courtesy" rather than a crime.
Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson said the scandal cost the city up to $2 million in lost revenue. He acknowledged that while cops have leeway in issuing tickets, authorities felt that what had occured was criminal and merited prosecution.
The charges for the officers capped six months of testimony from cops and union officials. The process was so stressful for those involved that one of the officers, Robert McGee, 62, a former union delegate, tried to commit suicide after he was forced to testify against fellow cops in the case.
The grand jury heard a series of wiretapped conversations, some of which were obtained by DNAinfo's "On the Inside."
On one, there was a discussion about killing a speeding ticket for Yankees executive Doug Behar. In that case, a Bronx union official was granted special access to clubs at the stadium in return.
Other recordings allegedly caught officers talking about quashing domestic violence incidents, drunken-driving cases and even making arrangements to pay for prostitutes.
DNAinfo also reported in May that an Internal Affairs cop was caught on tape telling a high-ranking union official that he would provide the heads-up if he caught wind of anything "serious" regarding the ticket-fixing allegations.
"The police department tries not to hire its problems," Commissioner Kelly said.
"We look to recruit only the best," he said, adding that in an agency of 50,000 people, even a small fraction will produce a number who commit crimes.
"Exposing police misconduct is a painful process, but is necessary to maintain the health of the police department. We owe it to the honest cops and to the public."