Uncovered by top cop
February 7, 2000
Police Commissioner Howard Safir's unmasking of four undercover officers who infiltrated the salvage and scrap-metal business of John Gotti's son-in-law, Carmine Agnello, has raised eyebrows, and questions, about Safir's motives and judgment.
Right after Agnello's indictment was announced last Tuesday at Queens District Attorney Richard Brown's office, with Safir and his top aides present, Safir announced another news conference at the Queens junkyard where Agnello did business. There, without informing Brown he would do so, but with the four undercover officers and television cameras, Safir identified the men and announced their promotions.
Apparently not enough media showed up to satisfy him, because Friday, Safir invited the media to a repeat performance at One Police Plaza. His office did not inform Brown of that event, either.
"They left here and went to the junkyard and promoted the guys on the spot," said a Queens prosecutor. "I was as shocked as anyone that Safir asked the press to attend. The issue is not the undercovers' promotion, which they certainly deserve. The issue is whether to make it a press event and whether to do it now and not after the trial, when their identities will become public unless the case is plea-bargained.
"Now, I can see Kornberg Agnello's attorney, Marvyn Kornberg asking the undercovers on the witness stand, 'What benefit did the department give you in return for framing my client?'"
Three former top Police Department officials noted that the department traditionally does not identify undercover officers, even when their assignments are over, and never before trial. Tradition is to promote them privately in the commissioner's office.
"It's grandstanding," a former top cop said of Safir's moves. "I question whether it is in the officers' best interests."
Their boss, Deputy Insp. James Dean, commanding officer of the auto- crime unit, acknowledges he's unaware of such a prior public ceremony but adds, "I can't remember a case of this magnitude, either."
Apparently, the department has reconsidered the wisdom of private promotions, because Dean then explained that publicly identifying the undercovers was actually protecting them.
"We specifically wanted to let the bad guys know these guys were police officers so there would be no mistaken interactions," he said. "We wanted to drive this point home as forcefully as possible. We didn't want any retribution. We felt this was the safest course of action."
Dean's boss, Deputy Commissioner Martin O'Boyle of the Organized Crime Control Bureau said, "The safety of the officers is our paramount concern. Anyone who says different doesn't know what he is talking about."
Safir's identifying the undercovers-although Your Humble Servant, who is of the old school, will not-contrasts with another well-publicized organized-crime bust: the 23 carting companies connected to the Gambino and Genovese families busted by Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau in 1995. Morgenthau and the department spent $250,000 relocating witnesses, including the principal police undercover, whose identity was revealed only at trial.
He's still on the job. Maybe Safir would like to tell the public where-and explain why. Maybe then Safir will tell us how safe that cop feels.
"The timing of your action has the effect of sending an implied message to the Trial Commissioner that the department is seeking a specific finding and recommendation," Palermo's lawyer, Mitchell Garber, wrote to First Deputy Commissioner Patrick Kelleher, who didn't return calls.
© 2000 Newsday, Inc. Reprinted with permission.