Hunker said his officers will give dollars to informants, but the money doesn’t come from forfeiture funds. “The confidential informants, if we want to keep them active, every once in a while, we do throw them some money,” he said.
He said the dollars come from drug dealers who pay undercover cops to help them launder money or transport drugs.
“The reason we’re successful is because of that team and because of our informants,” he said.
In all, the team has helped take in $19.3 million from criminals in the past 3 1/2 years in more than a half-dozen states and Puerto Rico, with the village raking in $8.35 million.
Hunker said the squad does more in the war against drugs by hitting the dealers where it hurts the most: their pockets.
However, several experts said the village’s practices raise disturbing questions about cops targeting cash rather than criminals — and operating thousands of miles from Bal Harbour.
In 2010 alone, village cops took part in 23 cases leading to $8.2 million in seizures — all outside of Florida — without law enforcement agents making a single arrest, records show.
“You lose sight of the law enforcement purpose when you’re concentrating on the money,” said Neal Sonnett, a Miami attorney and former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “The profit purpose is very dangerous.”
More than a decade ago, a South Florida task force got into trouble after authorities said it was laundering as much drug cash as it seized and made no significant arrests. One member was accused of taking kickbacks and commissions from informants — $625,000 his first year.
Hunker, who led that same task force in the years before it ran into trouble, claimed his current problems with the feds stem from politics.
He said he has frequently worked with local DEA offices in New York, New Jersey and Atlanta in big cash seizures, causing trouble with the Miami DEA office.
“The rub is we don’t give it directly to Miami,” he said. “This is a very competitive business just like any other business. If you look at our stats, we’re killing ’em.”
However, Scott Bullock, who litigates forfeiture cases across the country, said the reason the feds are putting pressure on Bal Harbour is to make sure the police are not abusing their authority.
“These monies should not be turned into basically slush funds to be used at their discretion, and it’s broad discretion, whether it’s to buy equipment or host parties,” said Bullock, who co-wrote Policing for Profit for the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit law firm in Virginia.
What is, isn’t legal
What’s not clear is whether Hunker is permitted to use cash from criminals — the funds he says are now paying for his cops to carry out investigations, including travel to cities across the nation. The credit card bills are paid from that pot of money, Hunker said.
Known as trafficker-directed funds, Hunker said the dollars come from bad guys who pay his undercover cops for services.
But several experts say police are not legally allowed to tap into that money — which is evidence — unless they get federal approval.
David Macey, a former Miami-Dade prosecutor who represented the South Florida Money Laundering Strike Force, said cash from suspects has to go through the courts.
“You can’t just stockpile it and then loan it for other purposes,’’ he said. “Usually the police don’t keep dirty money.”
Sgt. Jim Cox, who runs the asset forfeiture unit for the Fairfax County, Va., police, said his unit locks that kind of money away as evidence.
When paying for undercover work, “we use operational funds,” that come from taxpayers, he said.
Federal agents looking into Bal Harbour have yet to release their findings, now under review by Justice Department lawyers in Washington.
Sonnett, who has challenged money seizures in court, said the government is responsible for investigating a program that gives vast powers to police.
“There has to be controls,” he said. “There’s a danger of potential abuses. Law enforcement’s primary purpose is not the financial reward.”