'The truth needs to be told.' How a young officer helped take down one of the most corrupt departments in tri-state history
It was one of the tri-state's worst police corruption scandals until one young police officer risked his life to stop it.
Watch "Above the Law: The West New York Police Corruption Scandal" on a new episode of Crime Files - tonight at 9:30 p.m.
Walt Kane shares a preview of the episode:
New Jersey was rocked by the worst police corruption scandal in state history 25 years ago. By the time it was over, one-third of the police department in West New York would plead guilty or be found guilty. In an exclusive interview, Kane In Your Corner spoke to the officer whose bold undercover operation brought the corruption to light.
“I was taking bribes, I was reporting back to the FBI - all of this while wearing a wire for them,” Richard Rivera recalls. “Any move that I had to come up with, it had to be thought out 10 steps ahead, because what are the repercussions of this? What could they do to me internally in the police department? What could happen out on the street?”
Rivera was a young patrol officer in West New York in the mid-1990s. A recent graduate of the police academy, he was excited to work in his hometown, but says he was unprepared for the level of corruption that existed. As then-United States Attorney Faith Hochburg would later describe it, “If you paid a bribe, you got protection. If you didn't pay a bribe, you were raided.”
West New York was largely dominated by the Cuban mob in the ‘90s, which was paying bribes to dozens of officers, including then-Police Chief Alexander Oriente.
“Chief Oriente was in a conspiracy with Jose Grana, Sr., who was the leader of his own crime family in town, involving primarily prostitution and illegal gambling machines,” remembers John Whipple, a criminal defense attorney who represented one of the officers who was indicted.
Rivera decided to contact the FBI after witnessing a veteran detective sergeant leaving a known criminal front, carrying a brown paper bag. “He acted weird when he came out,” Rivera says. “He was looking around like something you see out of a movie.”
Asked if he thought the sergeant was carrying a bag of bribe money, Rivera replies: “I can only assume… I know there were no croquetas in there. Because they weren't cooking much in that place, except the books.”
The FBI sent Rivera undercover to expose both the mob and the corrupt cops protecting it. Four years later, in 1998, agents began making arrests. A total of 29 people would be convicted. But Rivera would pay a steep price for his courage. Fired by West New York, he eventually reached a settlement with the town, but then was unable to find another law enforcement job.
“There's no recovery from this,” he says. “This will follow me the rest of my life.”