NEW YORK --
Prosecutors took a shot at the nation's largest and arguably most powerful law enforcement union Friday, slapping criminal charges on 13 members after a lengthy probe into the longtime but under-the-table practice of making parking tickets disappear for friends and family.
The charges against the New York Police Department officers, two sergeants and a lieutenant were announced just three days after the embarrassing arrests of five police officers in a separate gun-running sting.
On Friday, hundreds of members of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association came to support the officers, some in suits, others in dressed in jeans and sweatshirts, clogging the street near the Bronx courthouse, filling the hallways near the arraignment room and applauding in court after the officers left.
Patrick Lynch, president of the union, which has nearly 23,000 members, said ticket fixing was sanctioned at the highest levels of the department, and he vowed that when the dust settled, they'd prove it.
"Taking care of your family, taking care of your friends is not a crime," he said. "To take a courtesy and turn it into a crime is wrong."
The officers pleaded not guilty to charges including misconduct, grand larceny and obstructing governmental administration. The case was touched off when authorities investigating a potentially crooked cop overheard talk of fixing tickets.
Earlier this week, federal prosecutors in Manhattan brought conspiracy and other charges against five current and three former officers alleging they were part of a gun-running ring. In two other recent unrelated federal cases, one officer was charged with arresting a black man without cause and using a racial slur to describe the suspect, and another with using a law enforcement database to try to trump up charges against an innocent man.
"It's not the best time for the department," said longtime police historian Thomas Reppetto. "Does it rise to the level of the great scandals that have occurred in the past? No. Ticket fixing is not on the same level as drug dealing."
Still, he said, it was wrong and union officials shouldn't be trying to pretend it's OK. Bronx residents had similar reactions as many stopped to watch the commotion outside courtroom, with some calling the officers crooks.
"It's a double standard. If a cop doesn't have to pay a ticket, then why do I?" said resident Terril Strod.
Among those charged were Jennara Cobb, an internal affairs bureau lieutenant who pleaded not guilty to charges she leaked information to union officials about the probe. As a result of her meeting, word spread through the union and members started to alter the way they fixed tickets, prosecutor Jonathan Ortiz said.
"The investigation was significantly compromised because of her actions," he said.
Her attorney, Philip Karasyk, said she denied the allegations and had been unfairly singled out. She was released on bail.
"That wiretap was leaking like a sieve," he said.
The majority of those arrested were delegates and union members. Among those charged were union officials Joseph Anthony, 46; Michael Hernandez, 35; and Brian McGuckin, 44. They are police officers but work full time for the union.
The others were members: Officer Virgilio Bencosme, 33, and Officer Luis R. Rodriguez, 43, both of the 40th Precinct; Officer Jaime Payan, 37, of the 46th Precinct; Officer Eugene P. O'Reilly, 39, of the 45th Precinct; Officer Christopher Manzi, 41, of the 41st Precinct; and Jason Cenizal, 39 of the 42nd Precinct.
"This has been laid on the shoulders of police officers, but when the dust settles and we have our day in court, it will be clear that this is part of the NYPD at all levels," Lynch said.
The charges evolved from a 2009 internal affairs probe of Jose Ramos, a 40th Precinct officer who also owned a barber shop and was suspected of allowing a friend to deal drugs out of it. Prosecutors said he transported drugs in uniform.
"He sold his shield, he violated his oath," Assistant District Attorney Omer Wiceyk said.
Wiceyk said Ramos was recorded as saying he "stopped caring about the law a long time ago." Ramos pleaded not guilty to drug and other charges. His attorney, John Sandleitner, said the charges were ridiculous. His client was held on $500,000 bail. Cobb posted bail and the others were released.
The conversation overheard on the Ramos wiretap led to more recordings that produced evidence of additional officers having similar conversations.
Ramos' supervisor, Jacob G. Solorzano, 41, was charged with misconduct. Sgt. Marc Manara, 39, Officer Ruben Peralta, 45, Officer Jeffrey Regan, 37 and Officer Christopher Scott, 41, all of the 48th Precinct, were charged with covering up an assault for an acquaintance. Some of the charges also overlap to include ticket fixing.
Five civilians were charged, including Ramos' wife. Aside from those officers charged criminally, dozens more could face internal charges. In one disciplinary case already decided earlier this year, a former union financial secretary in the Bronx admitted administrative misconduct charges and was docked 40 days of vacation and suspended for five days.
There are generally three ways the citations are fixed: They are voided by a ranking official, a copy is ripped up before it reaches court or the officer doesn't appear on the day of the summons.
Last fall, the department installed a new computer system that tracks tickets and makes it much more difficult to tamper with the paper trail. Commissioner Kelly also created a new unit to sit in on traffic court testimony and comb through paperwork to ensure none of the methods is being wrongly employed.
The last serious corruption scandal for the NYPD was the so-called "Dirty 30" case from the early 1990s. More than 33 officers from Harlem's 30th Precinct were implicated in the probe, with most pleading guilty to charges including stealing cash from drug dealers, taking bribes, beating suspects and lying under oath to cover their tracks.