By David Brand
An NYPD sergeant who uncovered blatant corruption in the 109th Precinct during the course of an 18-month undercover operation says top brass ignored his findings and then engaged in a “campaign to harass” him. The attorney representing him is an ex-cop who says he can relate.
Sgt. Steven Lee filed a lawsuit against the city and the NYPD in Queens Supreme Court last month. In the suit, Lee claims that Internal Affairs ignored his secret audio tapes, which exposed bribery, prostitution and drug dealing at Flushing karaoke bars. The NYPD elected not to pursue the protection racket that Lee says involved high-ranking cops in the 109th, organized crime figures and an ex-cop who coerced bars into contracting with his security firm, he said.
“You can’t have cops watching cops,” Lee said. “It’s sad to say, but it’s like a gang. You come in, you get initiated and if you don’t ride along with the program you get picked on and you get pressured to do what everyone else is doing.”
Rather than reward him for his work, the department began to systematically mistreat him, belittle him and analyze his every move, Lee said.
Lee sought an attorney to represent him in disciplinary proceedings and, later, the lawsuit, and connected with Joe Murray, a retired NYPD officer in the 115th Precinct. Murray said he too experienced harassment after he challenged authority and refused to toe the company line.
“[Lee] really struck me because I remember everyone being against me,” Murray told the Eagle. “It’s like I’m reliving it.”
The reward for exposing corruption
Lee and Murray sat in Murray’s Queens Boulevard office across the street from the Criminal Courthouse Sunday and gave a detailed account of Lee’s stressful 18 months working undercover for Internal Affairs and the retaliation they say he has experienced.
“This is why I became a lawyer,” Murray said. “They’re continuing to harass him and confront him. They’re cowards.”
Lee didn’t ignore the corruption he uncovered, and the department and commanding officers have made his life hell — messing with his assignments, threatening disciplinary charges and nitpicking his behavior at every turn, he said.
Lee’s complaint claims that the named defendants — NYPD brass, including former Commissioner Bill Bratton, and several allegedly crooked cops — “have engaged in retaliatory action, consisting of a persistent campaign to harass, defame, threaten, intimidate, extort, and endanger [Lee’s] life.” The NYPD has denied him “hundreds and hundreds” of hours of overtime and fair compensation for his undercover workload, when he would clock out at the station house so as not to tip off his colleagues, he said.
Meanwhile, Internal Affairs has swept his allegations under the rug in order to protect high-ranking and well connected cops — a routine exercise in the NYPD, Lee and Murray said.
“It’s everyone. This is job-wide,” Lee said. “You have a good cops who are there trying to do a good job. Trying to do their work, then you have other people who have other agendas saying, ‘No, don’t do that.”
Lee said the notion that the NYPD can police itself is the root of the problem.
“Let’s say the feds come in and say, ‘Hey, we want to investigate the Latin Kings and the Latin Kings say, ‘OK. We’ll investigate ourselves and we’ll let you know what’s going on.’”
Murray said the NYPD is desperate to protect top officials.
“They will crush the low-level cops,” Murray said. “It’s the bosses protecting the bosses, because they’re looking out for each other.”
A spokesperson for the New York City Law Department declined to comment on the lawsuit.
“We don’t try cases in the press,” the spokesperson said. “We’ll respond to the complaint in due course.”
The NYPD declined to comment on pending litigation and referred questions to the city Law Department.
A nightmarish ‘dream job’
The 109th Precinct in Flushing was a “dream job” for Lee, who is Chinese-American and speaks Mandarin.
“I finally got to help my people, to help my own community,” he said, recalling an instance when a Chinese woman who didn’t speak English came into the station house and described a sex trafficking operation. Since he understands Mandarin, he was able to translate for her and led cops to the home of a man who allegedly kidnapped the woman and forced to perform sex work at night.
Nevertheless, the 109th was marred by controlling cliques and low morale, he said.
Things should have changed for the better when the NYPD brought in a “straight cop,” Capt. Thomas Conforti, to take over the precinct. But several of the cops bristled at Conforti’s arrival.
Officers were allegedly paid off in a scheme to protect a number of Flushing karaoke bars that contracted with an ex-cop’s security firm. They didn’t like the change in command, Lee said.
The bars doubled as drug dens and brothels connected with organized crime figures from the local Chinese community, he said.
When one fellow cop told Lee about a plan to get one of the sex workers, known as a “PR girl” to “get rid of” Conforti by accusing him of rape, Lee decided to alert Conforti. A few days later, Internal Affairs asked Lee to record the cops discussing the “rape frame-up” plan, the suit claims.
Lee said he had no choice but to accept the role. He quickly realized that he had just scratched the surface of the corruption.
The cop who proposed the frame-up job was involved in the wider scheme to enable drug-dealing and sex work in the karaokes, Lee said.
“Something fishy’s going on. You sure you want to do this? Because it seems like you’re opening a whole can of worms,” Lee said he told his Internal Affairs handlers. They encouraged him to continue working undercover and recording what happened at the karaoke bar.
“During this time, [Lee] learned of a far greater scheme of corruption, involving a huge network of police-protected karaoke bars, in exchange for free alcohol and free prostitutes,” the suit states. “In addition to free alcohol and free prostitutes, [Lee] learned that high-ranking police personnel were also receiving large regular stipends, of thousands of dollars per month.”
On one occasion, Lee and other officers arrived at a bar to conduct a routine inspection — one that the bar owner was already alerted to by other officers. “I’m supposed to find nothing,” Lee said.
This time, though, Lee and two other officers found a handful of people sniffing cocaine in one of the private rooms, he said. They moved to arrest the suspects who were in possession of a large quantity of drugs, but Lee’s Internal Affairs handlers told him to tell the other two cops to let the suspects go. Arresting them could have jeopardized the investigation, he said the handlers told him.
After 18 months of taping and documenting illegal operations and the officer-backed protection scheme, the NYPD refused to pursue charges against any of the people involved, however, Lee said.
Instead, he said, they used the two low-level cops who released the drug dealers as “sacrificial lambs,” forcing them out of the department.
Lee persisted and tried to rally Internal Affairs to pursue additional charges, but they declined. Soon, he said, he began to experience a pattern of harassment by supervisors and administrators.
Flashbacks for Murray
Lee’s experience hit home for Murray, a former cop in the 115th Precinct.
Murray first got on the brass’ bad side after a confrontation with another cop who had allegedly roughed up his friend. The rival cop shoved Murray and Murray threw a punch broke that the man’s jaw, he said. Murray beat the departmental charges against him but said he became persona non grata.
“I took the side of the perp [his friend] and the department hung me out to dry,” he said.
The ill will intensified when Murray questioned a new policy that replaced experienced, trained officers on the DWI Unit with rookie cops because of overtime concerns.
“They figured they were going to take all these rookies, put them on the midnight shifts and assign them arrests for DWI, and do it on straight time,” he said. “But they gave them barely any training and they’re telling them to stick their head in the cars and take a whiff.
“They were just looking for numbers and the rookies are pups. They’ll do what they’re told,” he continued.
Murray said some directives endangered cops and others, like going after drivers who seemed to deliberately avoid checkpoints, violated the law.
‘The commanding officer of the unit got very upset with me because I kept trying to fight back,” he said. “It’s so hard for the rookies to stand up for themselves and so I locked horns with him.”
The commanding officer sent Murray back to the 115th, where he saw a colleague get suspended by the Civilian Complaint Review Board over what he considered a bogus charge. He wrote a letter to the police commissioner.
“So now I get known as a letter-writer,” he said. “The new [Commanding Officer] comes in, calls me into his office and says, ‘I got the story on you. You’re not allowed to write any letters unless you come to me first.’”
Eventually, Murray retired from the force and pursued his law degree.
Lee said he has no such plans just yet.
“If I quit now, I’d be throwing away 14 years of my life. I wouldn’t get a pension,” he said. “I’d be letting them win … This has to stop.”