OFFICER: UNION CHIEF SOLD MACHINE GUN

Albany cop testifies he bought a weapon later seized by federal agents

BRENDAN J. LYONS SENIOR WRITER
Section: Main,  Page: A1

Date: Wednesday, February 25, 2009

ALBANY -- An Albany police officer who unlawfully traded in a federally registered machine gun at a Colonie gun store seven years ago said he purchased the weapon from the head of the department's police officers union.


Officer Michael Romano, a former detective, had to testify about the machine gun on Tuesday during an unrelated criminal trial of a Ravena woman charged with fabricating statements to internal affairs, where Romano previously worked. Lee C. Kindlon, an attorney for Lisa Shutter, peppered Romano about his handling of her case and whether he is ''under investigation'' for the machine gun incident.


Romano told the court he bought the weapon from Christian P. Mesley, the Albany Police Officer's Union president who also serves as the department's armor master overseeing its firearms.


Romano did not say how much he paid Mesley for the gun. He said he brought it to a Colonie gun store and got $200 credit toward the purchase of a hunting rifle.


Mesley said ''no comment'' Tuesday when asked about Romano's testimony and whether he was concerned any laws were broken.


Federal agents seized Romano's machine gun after finding it illegally listed for sale in the Colonie gun store, B & J Guns, in December 2002. Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF) agents were investigating the store's owners for illegal activity.


ATF agents then learned Romano's gun was among roughly 52 machine guns secretly purchased during the early and mid-1990s by Albany police officers. Dozens of officers and at least two civilians bought the weapons with departmental letters signed by a now-deceased assistant chief, William Murray, who was an avid gun collector.


They were delivered in small orders at two Albany police stations over a period of years and paid for with postal money orders and personal checks.


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


The Times Union exposed the scandal in an August 2007 story that raised questions about whether federal prosecutors abandoned their criminal investigation of the gun store because of the investigation's leads into the Albany police force.


The federally regulated weapons could only be purchased for official use by a police agency or military unit. However, they were never deployed by the department, were unsuitable for urban policing, according to several officers familiar with the guns, and were taken home by numerous officers including some who retired.


Under federal law, the guns could not be resold, transferred or possessed by any individual police officer. They were purchased at tax-exempt prices and therefore any resale had to be authorized by the U.S. Treasury Department.


Three years ago, the Times Union filed court action against the city for its refusal to turn over its records related to the machine guns under the Freedom of Information Law. A state judge ordered the documents publicly released last year but allowed the city to redact the names of any officers, even deceased and retired police officers, who had possessed or purchased the weapons. The newspaper is appealing.


The Albany Police Officers Union joined the city's court fight to keep the records secret, including any names of officers involved. Their court papers were supported by an affidavit from Mesley.


Mesley said ''that's correct'' when asked Tuesday whether he had assisted Chief James W. Tuffey in his ongoing three-year investigation.


Tuffey ordered 42 of the guns destroyed two years ago in the midst of the court battle. The Times Union later reported several of the guns were missing.


Tuffey declined to put a timetable on his investigation, which was cited by the city in its arguments to keep the records sealed. Some city lawmakers have questioned why the investigation has taken so long, or, what it is designed to accomplish.


''I will not comment on an ongoing investigation,'' Tuffey said Tuesday. He downplayed Mesley's assistance in his probe.


''All I did was ask him to look at the list of guns, to compare them,'' Tuffey said.


The chief declined to say whether he had known about Romano's account of where he obtained the machine gun, or, whether it concerns him.


Assistant District Attorney Bruce D. Lennard, who is prosecuting the Ravena woman, told the court Tuesday that Romano had been questioned about the machine gun by Tuffey.


''There's not an investigation,'' Lennard told the judge. ''It appears to be some sort of personal inquiry by the chief.''


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


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