NEWARK — Instead of arresting brothel owners, a city police officer collected nearly $100,000 in cash bribes, allowing at least four houses of prostitution to operate in neighborhoods for years, federal prosecutors say.

Julio Rivera, 49, an Old Bridge resident, was charged Friday with three counts of extortion under color of official right, six counts of bribery, and five counts of aiding and assisting in the preparation of false tax returns.

Rivera, who was once fined for insurance fraud, could face as many as 20 years in federal prison after the U.S. Attorney's Office charged him with extorting illegal brothel owners in the Ironbound section from 2011 to November 2016.

The federal indictment says he took bribes from brothels on Van Buren and Lafayette streets from 2011 to 2012, from a brothel on Emmet Street from 2015 to 2016, and from a brothel on Jackson Street.

Investigators said the brothels employed prostitutes who traveled to Newark from New York and Colombia.

Rivera collected anywhere from $100 a week during the slow winter season to as much as $800 a week from the three owners, officials say. Prosecutors say Rivera's girlfriend and nephew, who were not named in the indictment, occasionally helped him collect the cash.

Investigators say Rivera shielded the brothels from police stings and he even looked up a license plate of a car parked outside of a brothel to make sure it did not belong to a cop, prosecutors say.

Among the evidence against Rivera, prosecutors say, are text messages in which he and brothel owners refer to the bribes and women as "food."

Prosecutors also are pursuing tax violations against him for failing to report the bribe income to the IRS.

Rivera has a history of violating rules and the law. In 2015, he was ordered by the state Department of Banking and Insurance to pay a $1,575 penalty after lying to his auto insurance company by not reporting that his daughter lived and garaged her vehicle at a different address.

In 2012, he was suspended for 15 days after failing to inform dispatchers where he had been while on duty.

New Jersey 101.5 did not know Friday whether Rivera had an attorney who could speak on his behalf. A spokesman for the police department did not immediately return a request for comment.

Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-359-5348 or email sergio.bichao@townsquaremedia.com.

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