In January 2013, the city’s then-top detective Phil Pulaski was sitting in his 13th-floor office at Police Headquarters when investigators slid a case file across his desk.
The file was about a Queens detective accused of improperly closing at least 22 serious felonies in 2011 and 2012 as the Daily News reported — by repeatedly making up phony witness names and fake addresses in official reports that his supervisors just rubber-stamped.
Pulaski, the Chief of Detectives and the third most powerful cop in former Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly’s NYPD, listened to the allegations against Detective Thomas Rice, of the 106th Detective Squad in Ozone Park, and — sources told the Daily News — he sputtered, “That’s impossible! How the f— did this happen?”
Rice’s misconduct was so serious and so brazen that investigators thought it merited immediate criminal referral to Queens District Attorney Richard Brown and a broader probe into whether the same thing was going on in other detective squads, sources said.
But that never happened.
At least 22 crime victims in Ozone Park had not only lost property worth thousands, but they had been cheated out of real investigations and didn’t even know it.
The case reeked of official misconduct, fraud, and a host of other potential crimes, and there were signs Rice’s misconduct went deeper. It was deemed so sensitive that it was hidden from public view until The News exposed it.
The shroud of secrecy over the case started with Rice’s precinct detective squad commanders. It rose through Queens South, the Queens detective borough command, the Internal Affairs Bureau, and the highest levels of the NYPD, according to sources and a Daily News review of police documents.
In the end, Rice not only avoided criminal investigation, he kept his $113,000-a-year job and his rank. His only penalty was 20 lost vacation days.
He remains on full duty in Brooklyn’s 67th Precinct, where he has made 42 arrests over four years. He has occasionally debriefed suspects, and served for a time as an administrative assistant to the sergeant overseeing the precinct’s Neighborhood Coordination unit.
In 2015 and 2016, he was the precinct’s domestic violence officer, sources said.
Rice has earned about $500,000 from the city since his misconduct was documented, records show.
He kept the required NYPD approval to run his successful pressure-washing business in Long Island. Island Wide Pressure Washing, Inc. made an estimated $173,100 in 2017, according to Dun & Bradstreet, a New Jersey-based company that analyzes commercial data for businesses.
“When it comes to getting the dirt out, no one does it better than Island Wide Pressure Washing,” Rice notes on his company website.
Rice has donated money to various fund-raisers, including buying a golf hole at the 2015 Queens detectives’ golf outing at Crab Meadow Golf Course in Northport, L.I.
Wilbur Chapman, a retired NYPD Chief of Patrol and a former city Transportation Commissioner, said Rice’s conduct could have easily been the subject of a criminal prosecution.
“Obviously a lot of people were involved, and the more people that are involved, the more embarrassing it becomes, and the more difficult it becomes to adjudicate and determine individual culpability,” he said.
Added another former high-ranking chief, “If it were me, he never would have remained a detective and he would have faced the most severe penalty.”
The case raises difficult questions for the NYPD from how it happened to how it slipped past the department’s quality control.
*Why did the NYPD not direct the Queens DA to open a criminal investigation?
* Why was Rice allowed to continue to make arrests?
*How much similar misconduct has gone undiscovered in other detective squads?
*What systems does the department have in place to prevent it from happening?
*What does the case say about the de Blasio administration’s hardline stance on Section 50-a of the state Civil Rights Law, which it has interpreted as barring the release of all police disciplinary records?
Rice, observers note, was able to get away with his misconduct and his bosses were able to bury the case exactly because of the secrecy that surrounds those records.
“This case perfectly illustrates how the secrecy surrounding NYPD disciplinary proceedings allows misconduct to be swept under the rug,” said Christopher Dunn, associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.
“Without section 50-a, this detective’s actions would have become public, and he surely would no longer be wearing a badge.”
Pulaski, who now commands the Miami Beach detectives, insisted that safeguards he put in place caught the misconduct.
“Following NYPD policy, when I learned of the misconduct, I promptly referred the matter to Internal Affairs,” he said. “From that point forward, they handled the matter. I had no role in deciding whether the case should be referred to the Queens DA’s office.”
The current Chief of Detectives, Robert Boyce was appointed in 2014, after Rice had already been disciplined and the case was closed.
He said that during his tenure, the NYPD has adapted a key database so it can catch this type of misconduct, and he personally trains every detective sergeant. He also has monthly meetings with his subordinates to discuss the work of individual detectives.
“There are safeguards and redundancies,” he said Friday. “There are a dozen investigative steps that are expected of you. When someone skirts that responsibility, we should be able to catch them.”
Boyce called Rice’s misconduct “laziness” and said he hasn’t seen it on his watch.
Rice’s lawyer James Moschella disputed that his client got off easy and that the case was swept under the rug. He said the evidence showed there was never any criminal intent.
“Getting bounced back to patrol, losing a month of vacation, that’s a significant penalty,” he said.
“Since that time, he has distinguished himself on patrol. He brought his experience to the precinct and has performed admirably. He is one of the reasons why crime is going down in the precinct.”
In fact, it all started with a lucky break.
In December 2012, Joseph Dorane filed a complaint with the Civilian Complaint Review Board, sources said. Dorane alleged that his ex-wife was breaking their custodial agreement involving their young son, the sources said.
Dorane claimed that Rice ignored his allegations and was rude and dismissive because his ex worked for the Queens District Attorney’s office.
The complaint wound its way to the Detective Borough Investigations Unit, a parallel oversight unit to Internal Affairs which handles misconduct allegations.
When problems were seen in a detective’s case, it was policy in the bureau to randomly select at least 10 other of his cases to review, sources said.
As IAB looked at Dorane’s claims, the investigations unit began looking at Rice’s cases.
“It never would have been caught if not for that complaint,” a police source said.
As they compared Rice’s reports from one to the next, the pattern literally leaped off the pages, sources said.
Rice was using the same fake names combined with fake addresses. He routinely cut-and-pasted the exact same witness accounts with the same typos into different reports.
Rice often closed cases within just three days after the crimes took place.
The investigators then verified their suspicions by knocking on doors and checking addresses.
Four supervisors — Stephen Borchers, Louis Balsamo, Hsuzhtsu Tsao and Michael Gaudio — were supposed to be examining his reports closely.
But none of them noticed Rice’s made-up names and plagiarized statements and signed off on his work.
Borchers, Balsamo and Gaudio did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Tsao could not be reached.
But Balsamo said in 2013 he simply didn’t notice what Rice had been doing, sources said.
Their superiors in the Queens South command and the Queens Detectives squad also missed the misconduct in the reviews they are supposed to do.
Pulaski, the professorial chief of detectives, and his executive officer, Deputy Chief Patrick Conry, were briefed on the preliminary findings in January 2013 and expressed shock and disbelief, sources said.
One of Pulaski’s subordinates at the time happened to be Chief of Fugitive Enforcement James O’Neill, the current police commissioner.
A few weeks later, investigators gave Pulaski a more detailed briefing with side-by-side comparisons of the reports to show the misconduct, sources said.
Pulaski then ordered a meeting with James Malloy, the commander of Queens Detectives.
“We gotta fix this,” Pulaski said, according to sources.
Investigators urged Pulaski to refer the case to Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, sources said.
But in a brief conversation, Pulaski called the DA’s office and decided the case would be handled internally by the NYPD, the sources said.
Incredibly, there are no written procedures in the NYPD Patrol Guide for seeking conferrals with prosecutors in police misconduct cases.
“This loophole allows chiefs to be arbitrary about these cases, and also allows prosecutors to decline to take cases and play games with NYPD brass,” a source said.
Pulaski denied talking to Brown. Boyce said DA conferrals are routine.
“This is a common practice,” Boyce said. “You think it should be memorialized, every action we take during the day?”
Kevin Ryan, a spokesman for the Queens district attorney’s office said neither Brown nor his prosecutors were notified about the Rice case or “anything remotely similar.”
Investigators tried again unsuccessfully to convince Pulaski to let them meet with prosecutors and go through the case, sources said.
They also asked to review all of Rice’s cases, and conduct a broader examination in other detective squads to see how prevalent the practice was.
“No, we’re not arresting him. Just fix it,” Pulaski said, according to sources. “We’re not making mountains out of molehills.”
Pulaski added that then-Chief of Department Joseph Esposito, the NYPD’s top uniformed officer, “doesn’t want cops collared.”
Pulaski denied that account.
“What you have been told is completely false,” Pulaski said Thursday.
It is not clear if Esposito was aware of the case.
A police spokesman said there was no record of any communication between the NYPD and the DA on Rice.
Rice sat for a formal interview with NYPD investigators in March 2013. He repeatedly said he could not recall where he got the names and addresses and could not answer other questions, sources said.
“I do not recall at this time. I cannot confirm that information,” he repeatedly said, according to sources.
Word of the case continued to filter out at the highest levels of the NYPD.
The Legal Bureau and the Department Advocate’s Office were both consulted, but they offered no recommendation.
In August 2013, investigators briefed the longtime Chief of Internal Affairs Charles Campisi, his deputy, Salvatore Comodo, a deputy chief, Internal Affairs Chief Edward Thompson and Conry, in detail.
Comodo asked whether the Queens District Attorney had been briefed on the case. Pulaski made the call, they were told.
The Internal Affairs chiefs could have taken the case and turned it into a criminal investigation, but declined to do so.
“IAB should have taken this case,” a source familiar with the case said. “He didn’t do it. Those are the facts.”
In November 2013 – 10 months after his misconduct had been exposed – Rice with Moschella’s help agreed to give up 20 vacations days, and was finally transferred to the 67th Precinct.
Then-Police Commissioner Kelly would have had to sign off on the deal. Kelly declined comment through a rep. His then-spokesman Paul Browne did not respond to an email.
When reached by The News, Campisi claimed not to remember the case. Comodo did not return phone calls.
Douglas Maynard, who was the deputy commissioner for legal matters in 2013, also declined to comment.
In February 2014, Robert Boyce was appointed to replace Pulaski.
Investigators briefed Boyce and his deputy Edward Armstrong on a range of cases, including the Rice case. Boyce declined to do anything further on the case, saying, according to sources, “Lay off on the detectives. I want to build up morale in the bureau.”
Boyce on Friday denied making the comment.
“That’s absurd,” he said. “What I did say was morale is an important part of it. I never said, ‘Lay off detectives.’”
Boyce appeared to challenge whoever The News’ sources were to a fight. “Whoever is telling you this is a liar,” he said. “I never said that. Bring them in here anytime and we’ll talk. In fact, you can wait until I retire and we’ll talk at a bar some place.”
In the end, none of the 22 grand larcenies and auto thefts were ever reopened.
Rice’s fake names and addresses wound up immortalized in the Enterprise Case Management System, the central database used by the Detective Bureau, sources said.
“It really doesn’t surprise that he got away basically scot-free,” a highly decorated retired detective sergeant said.
“They would have had to come after the squad commanders, the borough commanders and on up the chain for lack of supervision, and, believe me, they don’t want to bang the bosses.”
Another source noted, “The fact is that you have a case here that undermines the credibility of the department’s mission, and why the department wanted to cover it up instead of addressing it is unknown. It’s sickening.”
After he left the NYPD, Pulaski briefly ran the Muttontown Police Department on Long Island. He was recently hired to lead the detective bureau for the Miami Beach Police Department by another former NYPD honcho, Chief Daniel Oates, who is the top official there.
After Kelly stepped down, Bill Bratton became the city’s top cop followed by O’Neill.
As the names at the top changed, Rice kept on working patrol in the 67th Precinct. As the domestic violence officer, he followed up on domestic violence incidents and arranged for services for victims.
He has even been sued. In 2016, Sha-Quay Gaines alleged Rice was one of the officers who pounced on him outside a McDonald’s in 2015.
Gaines claimed he was held in a cell at the precinct for two days and the charges were dismissed.
A few months later, he claimed Rice and other cops kicked down his door, rousted him out of bed and arrested him.
The lawsuit claimed the cops lied to the Brooklyn district attorney to justify the false arrest.
In July, Rice had to personally pay $500 to settle the lawsuit, after the city took the unusual step of refusing to cover his costs. The city’s share of the settlement was $12,500.
He sued the city to force it to pay his share of the settlement, but he lost, records show.