NEW YORK >> Two New York Police Department officers and a retired officer were charged today in federal court with running a yearslong bribery scheme that included kickbacks from a tow truck company and the selling of personal information of recent car crash victims to injury lawyers and physical therapists.
The retired officer, Robert Smith, is also accused of smuggling heroin for an unnamed criminal organization after he left the Police Department in March 2020.
According to court documents, Smith, 44, accepted bribes for years from an unnamed tow truck company and an unnamed conspirator, identified only as “Individual No. 1,” in exchange for enlisting the person’s tow trucks at crash scenes, subverting the department’s system for assigning tow trucks.
Smith went on to recruit two officers, Heather Busch, 34, and Robert Hassett, 36, from the same Queens precinct where he worked in the scheme, according to court records. Together, they received thousands of dollars in cash payments, much of it funneled through a locked mailbox the officers shared, authorities said.
The officers later expanded the scheme by using department databases to identify car crash victims, whose names they funneled through the unnamed man to physical therapy offices and personal injury attorneys, according to court documents. They sold the personal information of at least 100 victims for more than $7,000, prosecutors said.
Before his retirement, Smith arranged for Busch and Hassett to continue the scheme. All three officers live on Long Island.
In court today, Smith pleaded not guilty to all charges. If convicted on all charges, Smith could face up to life in prison. Hassett and Busch could face up to five years in prison for each bribery count.
Investigators obtained text messages in which Smith said he had engaged in shakedowns and took bribes as a police officer, saying, “Bro I robbed everyone.”
In other text messages, Smith bragged about waving his gun in front of Black residents to scare them, according to prosecutors. Smith regularly used anti-Black racial slurs and referred to the Ku Klux Klan in his text messages, prosecutors said.
After his retirement, he said that his “real” self would shine, writing in a message: “I even shaved my head. Klan.”
Smith also approached his unnamed handler and sought post-retirement opportunities to stay on the man’s payroll — including using his status as a retired police officer to help traffic illegal narcotics across the city and state, authorities said.
In June 2020, Smith met with two drug traffickers and told them that he could carry a gun and his police identification when helping them smuggle drugs, according to prosecutors.
Afterward, prosecutors said, Smith transported a kilogram of heroin from Uniondale, New York, to Queens in exchange for $1,200.
Lawyers for Busch and Smith declined to comment. A lawyer for Hassett did not respond to a request for comment.
Police Commissioner Dermot F. Shea said in a statement: “There is zero tolerance in the NYPD for corruption of any kind.”
Several similar schemes have been uncovered within the Police Department in recent years. In 2016, three high-ranking Police Department officials were arrested in a wide-reaching corruption probe in which some of the officials accepted expensive gifts and luxury items from political operatives connected to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s fundraising efforts.
One of those police officials, David Villanueva, was connected to a bribery scheme within the Police Department’s gun licensing division that operated at around the same time.
And in 2019, six current and former Police Department employees were arrested and accused of running a kickback scheme in which they passed the names of car crash victims to specific medical clinics. At the time, prosecutors said the Police Department employees — which included five 911 call center operators and a police officer — received thousands of dollars in payments in exchange for the information.
The tow truck industry has also proved ripe for exploitation, both inside the city and elsewhere. In Buffalo, New York, in 2013, federal investigators accused several police officers of conducting shakedowns and receiving kickbacks from tow truck drivers in a pay-to-play scheme. And, in 2018, the district attorney’s office in Manhattan busted a tow-truck corruption ring that used shell companies, elaborate fraud and bid rigging to maintain a monopoly on towing in the city.
In the case against Smith, a key government cooperator appears to be the mysterious “Individual No. 1,” who paid out the bribes and facilitated the drug-trafficking scheme. The government’s evidence included video and audio recordings of Smith’s discussions with the individual.
During one conversation, Smith said that if he discovered the individual to be a “rat,” he would shoot him, according to a court filing.
In other recordings, authorities said, Smith referred to himself as “one of the most corrupt cops” in the 105th Precinct in Queens and said that being a police officer spared him from being “locked up so many times.”
Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn, which brought the case, have asked a judge to keep Smith in jail, writing in a court filing that they were concerned that he could intimidate potential witnesses to prevent them from testifying. A hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.
“Given his position as an NYPD officer, his actions constitute an especially jarring disregard for public safety, dereliction of his duty, and affront to the rule of law,” prosecutors wrote.
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