STAMFORD, Conn. -- Five law enforcement officers -- a Westchester County, N.Y., police officer assigned to Westchester County Airport, a Florida state trooper and three Transportation Security Administration officers -- have been arrested on charges of participating in a conspiracy to distribute tens of thousands of oxycodone pills, U.S. officials say.
A total of 20 people have been arrested -- 16 on Monday and Tuesday -- in connection with the operation, which allegedly brought the highly addictive painkillers to New York and Connecticut from Florida for illegal sale.
Michael T. Brady, 36, of Thornwood, N.Y., allegedly received more than $20,000 in bribes to facilitate the smuggling through the airport. Brady, an 11-year veteran of the department who previously worked for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection police, has been suspended without pay, said Westchester County police Commissioner George Longworth.
"We're all shocked and surprised," Longworth said at a news conference in the Stamford (Conn.) Police Department in which federal and local authorities described the alleged scheme. Longworth called the allegations "very disturbing" and "very disappointing."
Among the TSA officers arrested was Brigitte Jones, 48, of the Bronx, who worked at the Westchester airport.
The TSA officers, based at airports in Florida and New York, all allegedly received cash payments and gift cards of $50 and $100 to allow the transport of the drugs and the return of cash proceeds from the sale of the drugs back to Florida.
"In these times, no one needs to be reminded about how dangerous it is when officers who have sworn to uphold the law accept money to 'look the other way,' " U.S. Attorney David Fein said at the news conference.
Also arrested were Sami Naber, 51, of Yonkers, N.Y., and Emmanuel "Manny" Babe, 38, of Mount Kisco, N.Y., both of whom were accused of being couriers. Babe was accused of transporting the oxycodone from Florida to Connecticut and of transporting cash proceeds back to Florida. Naber was accused of leasing and driving rental vehicles to take oxycodone from New York to Connecticut, and cash proceeds back to New York and Florida.
Oxycodone is one of the most commonly abused prescription drugs in the rapidly growing problem of pharmaceuticals and dietary substances being taken for non-medical purposes, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
From 2004 to 2009, emergency room visits for non-medical use of prescription drugs almost doubled to 1.2 million. In 2009, oxycodone was responsible for 176,000 emergency room visits -- far more than visits for hydrocodone and methadone -- according to the institute.
It goes by brand names that include Oxycontin, Dazidox and Oxecta and is an ingredient in Percocet, Percodan and others.
"Prescription medication abuse is rampant in New England," said DEA Special Agent in Charge Steven Derr at the conference, "and this trafficking group allegedly preyed upon the addictions of individuals to line their pockets, while the law enforcement officers are alleged to have sold their badges and abused their authority to further the illegal activities of the organization."
The case broke in April when a DEA task force learned that a man carrying a "large quantity" of oxycodone was traveling from Palm Beach, Fla., Fein said. The man, whom authorities would not identify because he is also a cooperating witness, was arrested April 8 in a Stamford hotel with 6,000 pills.
The man had made 65 trips from Florida to New York, the vast majority to the Westchester airport. He told officers that he traveled there several times a week, carrying as many as 8,000 pills per trip, Fein said. Each pill sold for about $10 to $12, a substantial markup over the initial purchase price. The man also admitted that he gave cash and gift cards to TSA officers who screened passengers and luggage at Palm Beach (Fla.) International Airport and Westchester County Airport to ensure safe passage, Fein said.
The man also said he made several payments totaling more than $20,000 to the Westchester County officer to allow him to carry large quantities of cash, the proceeds of his drug trafficking, through security at the airport, the U.S. attorney said. The man also said he provided cash to a Florida state trooper and gave checks to the trooper's fiance, in exchange for the trooper's assurance that couriers would not be arrested while driving through central Florida, Fein said.
(Contributing: Jonathan Bandler, Theresa Juva and Ken Valenti, The (Westchester, N.Y.) Journal News.)