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Corruption-Trial Symbol: Fender-Bender Booking (Free Article)


Opening arguments in the corruption trial of former NYPD Deputy Inspector James Grant and Brooklyn businessman Jeremy Reichberg Nov. 6 focused on Federal prosecutors’ detailing of lavish vacations and tawdry entertainment that Mr. Reichberg arranged in return for special treatment provided by the ex-commander that included protection against summonses and arrests for himself and his friends.

Lawyers for the two men countered that the reciprocal aid was a noncriminal product of a rapport between their clients, who the lead attorney for Mr. Grant, John Meringolo, said were being prosecuted because the U.S. Attorney’s Office deemed it unbelievable that such a friendship could blossom between “an Irish-Catholic guy from Coney Island and a Jewish guy from Borough Park.”

A Resolute Highway Cop

But in a case expected to feature a tale about a trip to Las Vegas for the Super Bowl in which the in-flight entertainment was provided by a hooker, the highlight of the testimony that afternoon revolved around the cross-examination by Mr. Reichberg’s lawyer of a Police Officer who said she pushed ahead with the arrest of an associate of the defendant despite then-Inspector Grant trying to persuade her to release the man with a desk-appearance ticket.

Police Officer Theresa M. Haley, a 15-year veteran of the force assigned to Highway Patrol Unit 2 in Brooklyn, recounted her arrest of Avi Zangi on Jan. 18, 2015 after seeing him and another driver who had been involved in a motor-vehicle accident on the Belt Parkway on a service road near Flatbush Ave.

When she discovered that Mr. Zangi had a suspended license, she told the jurors in U.S. District Judge Gregory H. Woods’s courtroom, she placed him under arrest at 7:36 p.m. and took him to the 63rd Precinct stationhouse in Flatlands for processing. At one point, Officer Haley said, she was approached by a Sergeant who asked whether Mr. Zangi was getting a desk-appearance ticket, which would allow him to leave without being detained overnight before he could be brought before a judge the next morning.

She said she had replied, “No,” and that the Sergeant “was a bit shocked.” She learned that he had received a phone call about the arrest, and after being told that the caller was still on the line, she volunteered to explain her action. Upon picking up the phone, she was told it was Inspector Grant, whom she had met previously when she was assigned to the 76th Precinct in Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens section, one of three precincts he oversaw at the time, she testified.

A Surprised ‘No?’

She said she offered the same response to him that she had to the Sergeant regarding a desk-appearance ticket in lieu of being sent to Central Booking, and he too was “surprised. He asked the question back, like, ‘No?’ "

Mr. Grant left her with the impression, Ms. Haley said, that he would prefer that she let it go with a DAT, but she testified of Mr. Zangi, “He didn’t qualify,” because the Brooklyn District Attorney at the time, the late Kenneth P. Thompson, had a policy banning such dispositions in cases where an individual involved in a multi-vehicle accident was driving with a suspended license.

She said she then drove Mr. Zangi to Central Booking in downtown Brooklyn, arriving there at 10:26 p.m. Officer Haley said she received one more phone call—this one from her commanding officer, asking why she hadn’t let the driver go with a DAT.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica Lonergan asked her, “Did your answer appear to satisfy your CO?”

“No,” she responded.

After a brief recess, Officer Haley testified that the Sergeant at the stationhouse seemed “intimidated or a little worried” about having to tell Inspector Grant that Mr. Zangi was going to be put through the system. But she added that the NYPD Patrol Guide stipulated that DATs were not appropriate in cases involving “aggravated unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle” where the violations of the Vehicle and Traffic Law included a second-degree misdemeanor or first-degree felony.

A Unique Inquiry

Ms. Lonergan asked whether there had been any other instance during her career when a superior officer had called her to ask why she wasn’t letting someone go with a DAT.

“Not that I can recall,” Officer Haley said.

At no point during the direct examination of the highway cop had Mr. Reichberg’s name been mentioned, but it was clear—since his estranged business partner, Jona Rechnitz, will be appearing as a prosecution witness as early as Nov. 13—that it was believed Mr. Reichberg, who was described by Mr. Rechnitz in an earlier trial as a kind of “fixer” for the Orthodox Jewish community of Borough Park when it came to the NYPD, had been contacted by Mr. Zangi, and then reached out to Inspector Grant.

That was why the cross-examination of Officer Haley began with Mr. Reichberg’s lead counsel, Susan R. Necheles. She began, “You have a lot of power as a police officer, don’t you?”

“In what way?” Ms. Haley replied.

The attorney responded that she was referring to the discretion that police officers have available to them. She questioned her about the Patrol Guide, and when Officer Haley said that its directives weren’t absolute rules, Ms. Necheles asked, “You think you can just ignore the Guide?”

“No, that’s not what I’m implying,” the officer responded.

‘Just Avoid Night in Jail’

Mr. Reichberg’s lawyer pointed out that when a DAT is issued, “The case is not dismissed just because you send the person home…they just don’t spend the night in jail.” She noted that the Patrol Guide definition of a DAT was “an appearance ticket issued in lieu of detention, at the direction of a desk officer for misdemeanors, violations and certain Class ‘E’ felonies for hospitalized prisoners.”

“It’s your testimony,” Ms. Necheles asked Officer Haley, “that the arresting officer has complete discretion as to whether or not to issue a desk-appearance ticket?” She then quoted from the Patrol Guide, which under a heading of “Accountability” stated, “The decision to issue a desk-appearance ticket to an eligible prisoner rests solely with the desk officer.”

When she suggested that the Sergeant at the 63rd Precinct had seemed surprised at Ms. Haley’s refusal to dispose of the arrest with a DAT, the highway officer disagreed, asserting that his response was triggered because “he didn’t want to go back and tell the individual on the phone the answer that I gave him.”

Ms. Necheles pressed him on Inspector Grant’s demeanor during their phone conversation about the DAT. Officer Haley replied that he had “inquired to ask if [Mr. Zangi] was getting one.”

‘He Didn’t Order You?’

“He didn’t order you?” the lawyer asked. She pressed her on when the Brooklyn DA had issued his policy against handling such incidents with DATs, and said that Mr. Zangi “qualified for a desk-appearance ticket in every other way, didn’t he?”

“According to the Patrol Guide,” Officer Haley responded.

That led Ms. Necheles to say, “You decided you would not listen to your supervisor, you would not listen to Inspector Grant and would put someone in jail for the night…even though it’s against the Patrol Guide, based on what someone at the DA’s Office said? Aren’t you just making this up as an excuse for something you did that was wrong?"

The Dangling Question

Their exchange was interrupted by a request by Judge Woods for a sidebar involving the defense and prosecution lawyers, and when they finished the private discussion, he announced that he was sending the jurors home for the day. Ms. Haley’s testimony had run longer than expected, and a need to get other witnesses on the next day meant she would not be back on the stand the following morning and would be notified whether she would be recalled on Nov. 8.

And so Mr. Meringolo had not yet had a chance to grill her on behalf of Inspector Grant, and Ms. Lonergan had not been given the opportunity to quiz her based on issues raised by the defense lawyers. The question that hung in the air as Ms. Necheles pressed Officer Haley as to whether the circumstances required that she issue the desk-appearance ticket was, if her interpretation of the Patrol Guide was correct, why wouldn’t the Desk Sergeant, or Inspector Grant, have ordered her to comply rather than seeming surprised and distressed at her stance?

A Snaky Witness

Mr. Rechnitz pleaded guilty nearly four years ago to settle a long string of allegations regarding unrelated scams and improper payments, from vacations to cash bribes to campaign contributions, he made, often in tandem with Mr. Reichberg, in return for favors from ranking police officers and former Correction Officers Benevolent Association President Norman Seabrook to elected officials including Mr. de Blasio. He proved to be a sometimes-problematic witness in Mr. Seabrook’s two trials.

The first one ended in a hung jury a year ago when the ex-union leader’s lawyer, Paul Shechtman, and the counsel for his co-defendant, Murray Huberfeld, were able to cast doubt on his credibility by exposing repeated lies and scams, as well as simply unflattering and insensitive behavior in which Mr. Rechnitz engaged. After Mr. Huberfeld subsequently pleaded guilty to a lesser offense, the second trial of Mr. Seabrook ended in a conviction this past summer, with Mr. Rechnitz reined in enough by prosecutors to avoid making himself seem so distasteful to jurors. That led them to focus on damning testimony by the defendant’s former subordinates on the COBA board that he had deceived them about what became $20 million worth of investments in a hedge fund in return for a $60,000 bribe.

Among the unsavory details Mr. Rechnitz supplied prosecutors with that led to the indictment of Inspector Grant and another ranking cop, Deputy Chief Michael Harrington, were that he and Mr. Reichberg treated them to meals at expensive restaurants and foreign vacations, and gave Mr. Harrington tens of thousands of dollars worth of business with a security company run by his family. Mr. Rechnitz also told prosecutors that Mr. Reichberg had arranged a trip to Las Vegas for Mr. Grant and another cop to watch the Super Bowl, and on the flight there had paid for a prostitute to have sex with the two men.

In return for their generosity and using their political connections with others higher up in the department including then-Chief of Department Philip Banks III, Mr. Rechnitz was expected to testify, the two ranking officers provided a variety of favors to them, including helping them and their friends to avoid summonses and arrest. They sometimes resolved civil disputes involving the Orthodox Jewish community, pressured subordinates to assist Mr. Rechnitz and Mr. Reichberg, and helped facilitate promotions and transfers of other cops who had accommodated the two businessmen.

On one occasion, Mr. Rechnitz testified during the first Seabrook trial, one of the commanders arranged to have a tube of the Lincoln Tunnel closed so that the entrepreneur’s boss at the time could receive a police escort from Teterboro Airport into Manhattan after returning from a trip to Israel.

Gun-License Payoffs

Mr. Reichberg is also accused of making payoffs to other cops to expedite the processing of applications for gun licenses, sometimes to persons who would ordinarily have been denied them had they gone through normal channels.

Ms. Necheles joined Mr. Meringolo in arguing that there was nothing criminal about favors being traded between two friends, and both said that Mr. Rechnitz was cooperating with prosecutors to gain leniency while falsely implicating their clients in his own criminal activities. Mr. Meringolo has spoken of subpoenaing Mr. de Blasio—who has denied doing any special favors for Mr. Rechnitz, but also condemned Mr. Reichberg as someone he never should have gotten mixed up with—as part of an effort to discredit the witness.

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