Some would say that the exclusive island village of Bal Harbour, Florida doesn’t even need a police department. With a population of just more than 2,500 residents; as of the latest census, the town’s crime rate is minimal in comparison to other parts of Miami-Dade County. In addition to its permanent residents, Bal Harbour boasts close to fifteen percent of Miami’s overall tourism (as of 2014), with luxury hotels such as The Ritz-Carlton and St. Regis as well as the world class luxury Bal Harbour Shops, Bal Harbour Beach and Haulover Beach Park.
The latest statistics show a total of two violent crimes included in the one assault and robbery that occurred, with the rate of murders and rape exhibiting at zero. There were only two vehicle thefts last year which amounts to a miniscule percentage when compared to the overall incidents of motor vehicle theft in the entire county of Miami-Dade. Complete crime statistics can be found by clicking here.
So it may seem odd that a small police agency in a town facing little crime would concoct a plan to take on the world’s most treacherous drug cartels. But in a partnership with the Glades County Sheriff’s Office that’s exactly what they did. Or did they?
After developing their own 12-member task force, the combined entity cultivated arrangements with criminal enterprises throughout the United States in what blossomed into the largest undercover money-laundering investigation by a state law enforcement outfit in years. The wrinkle in their plan was that the supposed sting operations were commenced without letting federal authorities in on what they were doing.
During a three-year period as the second decade of the twenty-first century began, the task force cut deals with drug cartels and organizations across the country, sending drug dealer’s money to Venezuela for laundering, involving at least twenty people there, including men associated with the Hugo Chávez administration as well as the current Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s regime.
In early 2012, the Department came under scrutiny when the feds took notice of their “sting” operations. Soon afterward an investigation was commenced.
After the Justice Department Office of Inspector General released its initial report that slammed the department for wrongdoing, the first casualty became Bal Harbour police Chief Thomas Hunker who was suspended for professional misconduct in December, 2012. At the time, Hunker who had been police chief since 2003, supposedly asked to be placed on administrative leave to ensure the integrity of an outside law enforcement agency’s investigation which was launched after the report was disseminated. Bal Harbour’s Mayor did not return repeated calls from the press to comment on the suspension.
However, the report also cited many allegations against Hunker including receiving gifts from various individuals who may have benefitted from his influence and other instances of quid pro quo.
It was at that time that the Justice Department began looking into the Bal Harbour Police Department’s management of millions of dollars netted from laundering money from drug dealers as part of their ongoing investigations of various criminal networks, most if not all of them performed outside of Florida.
Further probing by the outside law enforcement investigation found that the department allegedly misspent funds that were seized from “supposed” drug arrests that added up to millions of dollars. The charges included allegations of police and detectives spending close to $24,000 on luxury car rentals, purchasing first class plane tickets and other questionable expenses during “their” undercover investigations including paying for officers’ salaries. The group was also accused of making large payments to informants throughout the country that at the time amounted to nearly $625,000. The paid informants supposedly tipped off the cops about promising lucrative busts that could be made across the country.
None of these laundering activities were ever revealed to the federal government.
Felix Jimenez, former chief inspector of the DEA was quoted as saying “They had no authority to do what they were doing… They were just lucky that when they were picking up all this money, nobody got killed.
As of the beginning of the New Year (2016), the federal investigation continues, handled by the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago. The total amount of money involved in the laundering investigation is $55.6 Million. The latest figure alleged to have been pocketed by the joint task force, taken from criminal enterprises stands at $2.4 million and resulted with no arrests whatsoever.
According to former DEA agent, Dennis Fitzgerald “They were like bank robbers with badges… It had no law enforcement objective. The objective was to make money.”
Further questions arose regarding a pool of funds that was never examined by federal investigators until an audit of an account held at SunTrust Bank was identified. The account was used to deposit and send cash by the undercover task force.
According to federal documents connected to the investigation, the task force wired funds on numerous occasions and continually funneled cash out of the country to be laundered before it was brought back in.
“…the police violated strict federal bans on sending illegal money overseas,” according to a law enforcement consultant close to the investigation.
The federal investigation continues. Check back here for further updates.
To read a full analysis of the ongoing story, see The Miami Herald’s six-part investigative series named “License to launder” by clicking here.
Money laundering is a federal crime which is punishable with stiff fines and penalties as well as lengthy prison sentences upon a conviction. With close to forty years in the legal field working as an Assistant United States Attorney prosecuting cases for the government and for the past fifteen years practicing as a criminal defense attorney in South Florida, my law office is dedicated to the defense of all federal criminal charges and is the proper choice to fight allegations when accused by the federal government.
To view my qualifications and read what you should do if you are arrested and charged with Money Laundering or any other federal crime, click here.