Records missing in gun probe

Release of Albany police files also reveals more illegal weapons were purchased than originally believed

BRENDAN J. LYONS Senior writer
Section: Main,  Page: A1

Date: Sunday, August 17, 2008

ALBANY --The Albany Police Department either destroyed records or failed to document its internal investigation of the illegal purchase of machine guns by dozens of Albany police officers and at least one civilian.


The gap in record-keeping was revealed recently when the city was forced by a judge's order to release its files on the machine guns to the Times Union under a freedom of information request made more than two years ago. City attorneys turned over dozens of pages of documents that included invoices, copies of money orders, canceled personal checks and correspondence with the Vermont arms dealer that provided the guns.


The records indicate there were more purchases than previously estimated by Chief James W. Tuffey, who had pegged the total number of weapons at 48 with six missing.


But the documents show there were apparently 52 machine guns purchased, and that at least nine are missing.


Tuffey said the department destroyed 42 of the machine guns last year. In an interview last week, he said confirming the total number of guns has been difficult because the department had almost "no records" related to the purchases.


The policy of the department's internal affairs unit is to document its probes, including interviews with officers or witnesses, leads pursued, and final determination; and to keep detailed property reports for any seizures of firearms or other evidence.


The only documents reflective of the internal investigation are pages of photocopies of property tags that Tuffey said were affixed to the now-destroyed weapons. The tags contain the serial number of the machine guns and the names of the current and former officers who possessed them. But under the court decision releasing the documents the names were redacted.


The only name not blacked out is Brian Farley, a former Albany County assistant district attorney who was among at least three civilians, including a local judge, who were questioned about whether they purchased one of the guns. Farley returned his machine gun to the department and has declined requests for an interview.


The scandal was kept quiet by the police force after it was discovered in late 2002 by agents with the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives. The ATF found one of the machine guns - still registered to the police force - illegally listed for sale in a Colonie gun store, B & J Guns.


The federal agents seized the gun and checked the department's list of federally registered weapons. They learned Albany police had many more machine guns than normal for a force its size.


Federal agents gave former police Commissioner John C. Nielsen a list of the department's federal firearms and advised him to conduct an inventory. It revealed dozens of missing machine guns and short-barreled shotguns, according to three people familiar with the matter.


The list of federally registered weapons turned over to Nielsen by the ATF, and any record of the department's inventory, were not in the documents released by the city last week.


Also missing was a letter that former Police Chief Robert Wolfgang wrote to the ATF in 2003 stating the department had lost 12 machine guns.


Earlier that same year, Nielsen, who has since retired and could not be reached for comment, ordered an internal affairs commander, Anthony Bruno, and a police union official to find and retrieve the missing guns.


Bruno, now an assistant chief, recovered many of the weapons. They are illegal for any individual, including a police officer, to privately possess, trade or resell. In one instance Bruno had to threaten a former police commander with arrest before the retired officer would turn over his machine gun, two sources familiar with the incident said.


Despite Bruno's months-long internal probe, there were no documents related to that investigation in the files released by the city.


The records confirm that the machine guns, and thousands of rounds of ammunition, were obtained illegally - they were not for departmental use - and by circumventing the city's purchasing procedures.


The guns were delivered in small orders at two Albany police stations over a period of years in the mid-1990s, records show, and paid for with postal money orders and personal checks.


The purchase orders were made on official departmental letterhead and signed by a late assistant chief, William Murray. The letters falsely stated the guns were for "official duties only."


No one involved with the purchases has ever been disciplined or prosecuted in connection with the gun purchases.


Two weeks ago, the city's attorney, Jeffrey V. Jamison, wrote a letter to acting state Supreme Court Justice Roger D. McDonough asking to redact an officer's name from a purchase order.


"The name is of a police officer who is a target of the investigation," Jamison wrote.


However, a copy of that November 1994 letter already was provided to the Times Union in April 2006. It was the only document the city previously gave the newspaper; and that was done after city attorneys were told the Times Union already had a copy.


It's not clear why Jamison wouldn't have known that letter had been released. His assertion that there is an "investigation" apparently is in reference to a probe that Tuffey said he launched two years ago after the Times Union asked for the documents. The chief has not given a timetable for concluding his probe.


In the ruling ordering the release of the records, McDonough called into question the purpose of Tuffey's investigation:


"Tellingly, Chief Tuffey fails to identify his or the Albany Police Department's actions as a criminal investigation, makes no mention of any criminal charges that might result from the investigation, and does not discuss the effect that statutes of limitations might have on the viability of such prosecutions," the judge wrote.


Tuffey said last week he intends to issue a "report" when he concludes his probe.


"What will come out at the end with this report, I believe that I'll be able to say what happened with certainty ... and what should have happened," the chief said.








Brendan J. Lyons can be reached at 454-5547 or by e-mail at blyons@timesunion.com