(CNN) -- Seventeen Baltimore police officers are accused of receiving $300 for each vehicle they steered to a repair shop not authorized to tow vehicles from accident scenes, authorities said Wednesday.
The shop's two owners, also charged, allegedly paid officers to arrange for their company, rather than a city-authorized firm, to tow damaged vehicles to their shop, according to the U.S. attorney's office in Baltimore.
"The criminal complaint alleges that the officers were secretly working for a private auto repair business when they were supposed to be working for the police department and the citizens of Baltimore," said U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein in a statement. "Police officers cross a bright line when they take payments from private citizens in connection with their official duties."
The defendants are charged with conspiracy to commit extortion, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years.
Hernan Alexis Moreno Mejia, 30, and his brother, Edwin Javier Mejia, 27, operate Majestic Auto Repair Shop LLC, which, according to the statement, was not authorized to tow vehicles in the city.
According to an affidavit filed with the complaint, the police officers received about $300 for each vehicle they steered to Majestic. According to the affidavit, during the two-year scheme, officers received payments totaling from $300 to more than $14,400.
According to the affidavit, from January 2009 until the present, the involved officers called the shop owners from an accident scene and described the damage to vehicles. The officer then would tell the vehicle owner that Majestic would help with towing, repairs, car rental and an insurance claim.
The complaint alleges Majestic would tow the vehicles, even if they were not disabled.
"The officer would falsely state in his or her police report, if one was prepared, that the vehicle owners arranged for their own tow, or the BPD Officer would intentionally leave the box blank in the report as to towing or vehicle removal method," according to the affidavit. "A claim was then submitted to the insurance company for payment for repairs allegedly made by Majestic to the towed vehicle."
Rosenstein told reporters that the investigation, assisted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, included court-approved wiretaps and electronic surveillance.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick Bealefeld praised the "selfless" 2,800 men and women in the department.
"We can't give quarter to corruption," he said.