- Associated Press - Monday, April 18, 2016

NEW YORK (AP) - A member of a neighborhood patrol described by a prosecutor as an “arms dealer” was charged Monday with bribery and conspiracy, accused of bragging in a wiretapped conversation that he used connections in the New York Police Department to get over 150 gun licenses for people without required background checks.

Alex Lichtenstein, 44, was released on $500,000 bail after U.S. Magistrate Judge Henry B. Pitman in Manhattan said Assistant U.S. Attorney Kan Nawaday’s description of him as “no less than an arms dealer” was “somewhat hyperbolic.”

Nawaday had asked the judge to detain Lichtenstein until trial as a flight risk and danger to the community, but the jurist found neither was a serious concern because the lifelong New York resident had unusually strong ties to the community and authorities had no evidence the guns he allegedly helped others get were used illegally.

Outside court, defense attorney Richard Finkel declined comment.

The criminal case seemed to have an immediate effect on the police department. The NYPD transferred the head of the license division, a sergeant and an officer, who were stripped of their guns and badges and put on desk duty pending a review.

Lichtenstein, also known as Shaya, was a member of the Shomrim patrol based in Borough Park, Brooklyn, a volunteer organization specifically for Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods made up of ostensibly unarmed members. Patrol members cooperate with the police and wear jackets or vests issued by the department. Their shield looks similar to the NYPD’s.

According to court papers, Lichtenstein conspired with at least three members of the NYPD’s license division and others from 2013 through February to pay bribes to obtain gun permits. He said his customers needed his services “because the License Division would otherwise reject applications ‘for the biggest stupidity,’ such as a history of moving violations,” the court papers said.

He bragged about connections with an unidentified officer and sergeant, but when he tried to bribe an officer he knew outside the licensing division, the officer informed internal affairs and caught Lichtenstein on a wire, officials said. On the wiretap, Lichtenstein said he could pay the officer about $6,000 for each license he helped him obtain, prosecutors said. An officer said he and a sergeant received “lunch money” in exchange for helping him, according to the complaint.

The mission of the Shomrin includes stopping criminal activity and locating missing people. In many neighborhoods, its members are the first call - not law enforcement. The group has about 150 members who are all required to volunteer at least one night a month.

The arrest came as federal investigators continue to probe whether police officials accepted gifts in exchange for favors. Federal agents interviewed at least 20 officers on whether they accepted gifts in exchange for favors from two businessmen who gave money to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 2008 mayoral campaign and others.

Police Commissioner William Bratton said Monday the probe would “continue to go where the leads take us.”

Five other senior officials were also reassigned and a community affairs detective was suspended after he refused to testify before a grand jury.

No other criminal charges have been filed.

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