A sting operation resulted in the arrest of 12 people, including five New York Police Department officers, on charges that they smuggled $1 million worth of firearms, cigarettes and slot machines they thought were stolen, authorities said Tuesday.
Three retired NYPD officers and a New Jersey corrections officer and three civilians are among the other defendants named in a federal criminal complaint.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said they were willing to smuggle a variety of contraband "as long as the price was right."
Arresting fellow law enforcers "is a heartbreaking thing, but it's our duty to uphold the law," he said.
"The vast majority of police officers do outstanding work to protect the city," Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said.
The men were to appear in court later Tuesday to face conspiracy and firearms charges. The names of their attorneys were not immediately available.
The arrests stem from an FBI-NYPD internal affairs investigation that began in 2009 when a confidential informant tipped off authorities that an NYPD officer was interested in making money by transporting stolen goods. In the months that followed, the informant and an undercover officer began supplying the defendants and others cigarettes purportedly stolen out of state for resale, the criminal complaint, unsealed Tuesday, says.
Later in the alleged conspiracy, the defendants agreed to transport 20 weapons from New Jersey to New York using rented minivans, the complaint says. The cache was composed of three automatic rifles, a shotgun and 16 handguns, "the majority of which had obliterated or altered serial numbers," it says.
According to the complaint, the case centers on Officer William Masso, an 18-year veteran of the NYPD. Kelly said it was Masso who recruited younger officers into the conspiracy.
"The most disturbing aspect was that according to the complaint, William Masso actually saw what he must have believed to be operational firearms," he said. "For all he knew, they were fully capable of being fired at a human being."
In fact, the guns had been rendered inoperable. The motive, prosecutors say, was a basic one: money. The defendants allegedly received more than $100,000 total in cash payments for their role in the scheme.
According to Bharara, the defendants put their law enforcement backgrounds to work, using their credentials and training to make sure the operations would be successful.
"For example, in a meeting before one of the stolen slot machine deals, Masso allegedly suggested that they carry their badges during the operation, so that if stopped, they could say they were just off-duty cops delivering items somebody had purchased at an auction," he said.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg has long targeted exactly this kind of illegal smuggling of guns into the city, inserting himself into the national debate over gun control and heading a national coalition of mayors advocating stricter enforcement.
About 90 percent of the 5,000 guns confiscated by city police last year were from out of state, and the Bloomberg administration has mounted sting operations around the country with the use of undercover investigators. The investigators bought semiautomatic pistols at gun shows even though they said they probably couldn't pass a background check, and they posed as gun buyers making so-called straw purchases, with one person filling out the paperwork for another person's gun purchase.
Tuesday's arrests come amid speculation that the Bronx district attorney's office is close to bringing charges in a separate police misconduct case. A dozen or more officers, including union representatives, are facing allegations they abused their authority by helping friends and family avoid paying traffic tickets.
The gun-smuggling complaint describes the confidential informant being introduced to one of the accused officers "as a person who could 'fix' the CI's traffic tickets." The officer, it adds, "discussed his willingness to 'fix' tickets."
It was unclear whether the ticket-fixing reference has any connection to the Bronx investigation. The officers named in the federal complaint are assigned to commands in Brooklyn.
Kelly insisted New Yorkers should have faith in the department.
"I don't believe corruption is on the rise. We have 1,000 people in the department focused on internal investigations. That's as many people as we devote to counterterrorism," he said. "But there's no question about it: A case like this is disheartening to the entire department."
Masso and the other defendants have yet to comment on the charges against them.
NPR's Joel Rose contributed to this report, which contains material from The Associated Press