Bal Harbour is a picturesque oceanfront village in Florida, with a population of just 2,513. And apparently, their police department though had visions of playing Miami Vice, and an elaborate money laundering scheme that made them millions.
According to an investigation by the Miami Herald and federal investigators, the Bal Harbour Police Department partnered with the Glades County Sheriff’s Office to form the Tri-County Task Force. In the years the task force was in operation between 2010 and 2012, more than $55.6 million was taken in from drug cartels and other criminal organizations.
The members of the task force posed undercover as money launderers, taking the money from these criminal groups, laundering the money through hundreds bank accounts and dozens of storefront exporters, and then sending the vast majority of this money right back to the same drug dealers selling poison on the streets of America.
Police reportedly made more than $1.7 million for themselves in commissions, as payment for their money laundering services. The real clincher? The Tri-County Task Force, that despite its’ name, was comprised of only two organizations and never made a single arrest. Not one. Ever.
According to Dennis Fitzgerald, an attorney as well as a former Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent who worked with the U.S. State Department teaching undercover tactics, the sole goal of the task force was to get rich.
They were like bank robbers with badges,” said Fitzgerald. “It had no law enforcement objective. The objective was to make money.”
Although confidential records show that officers withdrew hundreds of thousands in cash, there are no records of where that money went.
Officers spent tens of thousands traveling as far as Los Angeles and San Juan to complete their transactions, flying first class, staying in posh five-star hotels, and eating $1,000 meals in fancy restaurants. They also purchased an estimated $100,000 worth of electronics such as cell phones and computers, as well as several FN P90 submachine guns.
After an investigation by the Department of Justice determined that police had inappropriately used money from the seizures of cash and cars to pay police salaries, Police Chief Tom Hunker, who was also the head of the task force, resigned in 2013.
However, the Miami Herald’s investigation found that federal investigators hadn’t even touched the tip of the iceberg, and shortly after their investigation was underway the first ever audit of the task force began — something that should have been done yearly as a matter of routine.
So far, auditors have recovered $245,000, but examiners have found evidence of cash deposits in the Sun Trust Bank, that do not appear anywhere in police records, totaling $28 million.
Mark Overton, who replaced Hunker as Bal Harbour police chief, says that the amount of money discovered so far in the investigative process “is shocking.” Overton would not comment on the audit, but did say that so far the investigation is “turning up more questions than answers. The fact that there are no records makes it very difficult to answer any questions.”
The Miami Herald inquiry found the following:
Police routinely withdrew cash — thousands at a time — totaling $1.3 million from undercover bank accounts, but to this day there are no records to show where the money was spent. “In all my years of law enforcement, I’ve never seen anything like it,” Chief Overton said.
Bal Harbour officials say they cannot find receipts for hundreds of thousands in expenses, including five-star hotel bookings, dinners that ran up to $1,000 and scores of purchases like laptops, iPads, electronic money counters, flower deliveries and even iTunes downloads.
While posing as launderers, police delivered nearly $20 million to storefront businesses in Miami-Dade to launder the money for drug groups — gathering critical evidence against the business owners — yet took no action against them. Years later, the businesses are still open, some still suspected by federal agents of laundering for the cartels.
Money wasn’t the only thing the task force didn’t keep records of. The Tri-County Task Force took part in 235 money-laundering deals, but there are records of just thirty-nine. This means that even if officers had intended to go after these criminals at any time, whether they be the drug cartels or the exporters who helped launder the money, they couldn’t have done so successfully because they wouldn’t have had the necessary documentation.
I look at these records, and it’s just mind-boggling,” said Overton. “It’s such an aberration. The cases never culminated in any arrests.”
Fitzgerald points out that his former agency, the DEA, holds responsibility for allowing and assisting the task force in gallivanting around the northern hemisphere to perform their money laundering deals.
It’s just unbelievable. It couldn’t have gone on without the complicity of the DEA,” he said, noting that the DEA had never actually checked to see how much the task force had laundered for criminals. “They couldn’t have been flying around the country picking up cash without the DEA.”
According to Fitzgerald, all investigators can do now is “follow the money.”
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