Newark Airport customs officer named in 'rape table' controversy was engaging in 'horseplay,' lawyer argues

The lawyer for a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer charged in connection with hazing incidents reported at Newark Liberty International Airport is claiming his client was merely engaging in “horseplay.”

Michael Papagni, 33, was one of three CBP officers – along with Tito Catota and Parmenio Perez – charged in 2017 with “forcibly assaulting, impeding, intimidating and interfering with” two of their new male co-workers on the Passenger Enforcement Rover Team (PERT).

Allegations against the three also mentioned a “rape table” located at the PERT office in Terminal C, on which the victims claimed they were pinned and made to endure simulated sex acts.

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Papagni’s attorney, however, argued in federal court on Tuesday that no actual crime occurred during the incident,” The New York Post reported Tuesday.

“There’s no dispute there was physical contact, there was no assault,” said attorney Joe Tacopina. “The government had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Michael unlawfully and intentionally attempted or threatened to physically injure.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Rahul Agarwal argued that Papagni’s actions constituted more than just “horseplay,” especially because of the nature of their job.

“You know that these officers, these defendants were supposed to protect others,” said Agarwal.

The jury was expected to begin deliberations Wednesday.

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Last June, Tito Catota, one of the other accused officers, pleaded guilty to charges of assaulting, impeding, intimidating and interfering with the jobs of the new PERT officers.

News of the officers’ alleged behavior at Newark Liberty airport broke in May 2017, following an investigation from WNBC in New York. According to a criminal complaint obtained for the channel’s original report, Officers Catota, Perez and Papagni were accused of abusing employees by threatening to place them on an office table in their Terminal C offices — the aforementioned “rape table” — where they would be made to endure simulated sex acts.

At the time, all three officers were part of the now-defunct Passenger Enforcement Rover Team (PERT), which was responsible for identifying dangerous contraband and threats to national security.

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One victim who spoke to WNBC, and wished to remain anonymous, claims he was threatened with the “rape table” in October 2016, less than two weeks after starting the job.

The following January, he alleged that Papagni threatened to “teach him what this team is about” while he was looking for a document. He said officers turned the lights out so Papagni, Catota and another officer could hold him on the table while Perez sat atop him and grinded against his genitals through his clothing. The officers eventually let the victim off the table after he could not break free himself, he claimed.

Another victim shared a similar story, alleging that he entered the PERT office in November 2016 only to have one PERT officer lock the door behind him while Catota, Papagni and Perez held him on the table. One of the officers also rubbed his genitals along his leg before allowing him to get up, he says.

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News 4 also reported that other CBP officers described similar incidents after the initial complaints were published, including Vito Degironimo, who claimed that his fellow officers “ended up mounting me and pretty much riding me like a horse.”

“I don’t know how much more criminal you can get,” Degironimo said.