Bal Harbour leaders stand by embattled chief

 

Bal Harbour officials voiced support for the village’s top law officer, and said they will hire an outside attorney to fight an investigation that led to sanctions.

dchang@MiamiHerald.com

Though some residents expressed surprise that Bal Harbour cops had been jetting around the country, seizing millions from drug dealers while being paid to protect the village, elected leaders voiced support Thursday for their embattled police chief, Thomas Hunker.

During a contentious special meeting of the village council, Hunker staunchly defended his agency, which came under fire this week from the U.S. Justice Department for tapping into seized drug money to pay for first-class flights, luxury car rentals and cash rewards for drug informants hundreds or even thousands of miles away.

“This is my responsibility,’’ Hunker said of the federal probe first reported by the Miami Herald on Sunday. He added, “We have not done anything wrong.’’

The feds reported this week that the confiscated money has not been properly accounted for, and demanded that Bal Harbour promptly return $4.2 million. It also froze millions seized under the program and barred Bal Harbour from further participation.

Members of the village council vowed to challenge those sanctions, and hired the law firm of Dan Gelber, a former federal prosecutor, to represent its interests.

Although the council as a whole rallied around its chief, Jaime Sanz expressed concern that the federal findings had sullied the reputation of the village and its officials.

“We sit here and we let it happen,’’ said the councilman. “Whatever it takes, we have to clear it up.’’

But the village’s assistant mayor, Joni Blachar, said that while the council approved the use of forfeiture funds, the panel never was informed of the program’s operational expenditures. She urged her colleagues to stand together.

“We must support our chief,’’ she said.

Hunker, 61, justified the operations with a power point presentation describing the results of investigations initiated by the village vice squad in 13 states since 2010, and leading to more than 200 arrests, and the seizure of copious amounts of drugs, weapons and cash. The operations were carried out under a federal program that allows police to seize cars, boats and cash from suspected criminals — and keep a cut of the proceeds.

“People say this is all about the money,’’ Hunker said. “It’s not about the money to me.’’

But without the millions that Bal Harbour has received in federal forfeiture funds over the years, police operations will be severely curtailed — and village leaders may be forced to raise taxes to make up for the lost revenue, according to the city’s independent auditors, Marcum LLP.

Marcum auditors notified Bal Harbour administrators in May that the village has grown increasingly dependent on federal forfeiture dollars to fund the police department’s equipment and training needs.

“The loss of these revenues,’’ the auditors wrote, “would likely require the village to raise more money through higher local taxing efforts.’’

Mayor Jean Rosenfield declined to say whether a tax increase may be necessary, but said she still supports Hunker.

“At the moment,’’ she said, “we have confidence.’’

In addition to suspending Bal Harbour from the federal program, Justice Department officials accused the village police of repeatedly refusing to cooperate with the department’s investigation.

As for the $4.2 million demanded by the Justice Department, Village Manager Alfred Treppeda said Bal Harbour has about $2 million remaining in unspent federal forfeiture funds. He said he has not yet determined where the additional money will come from to repay the government.

Village council members indicated they are willing to fight the sanctions, and voted unanimously to hire the law firm of Gelber, Schachter & Greenberg to challenge the Justice Department’s findings.

Treppeda said the village was awaiting receipt of about $9 million in forfeiture funds when the sanctions were announced this week. He said the independent attorneys will be tasked with helping the village get those funds from the government.

Bal Harbour has ceased all police activities funded through the federal program — including overtime for cops, and covert operations in such far-flung locations as California, New York and Illinois, Treppeda said.

The village also has canceled employment contracts for two police officers stationed in Southern California and on Florida’s west coast, and whose salaries were paid with forfeiture funds in violation of federal guidelines. The two police officers played the key role of managing the department’s network of informants who tip off the cops to the cash.

Residents and others who spoke at Thursday’s meeting appeared evenly divided in their praise and criticism of Hunker and the village’s forfeiture unit.

Brian Mulheren, president of the Bal Harbour Citizens Coalition, questioned why village police were working cases in California and New York.

“The police department is chartered to protect the residents of Bal Harbour,’’ he said. “Our police department needs to operate for the residents.’’

Several residents made it clear they have no appetite for higher property taxes, or for spending more money to retain an independent attorney to fight the feds.

“It would be imprudent for the village to throw good money after bad,’’ said resident Dina Cellini, who also called on the council to fire the chief.

“I urge you to send Chief Hunker on his way,’’ she said.

Others chided the council for attempting to diminish the results of the federal investigation by calling them “allegations’’ and comparing the probe to an Internal Revenue Service audit.

“These are findings,’’ said resident Larry Jaffe. “We all agree we don’t like crime, and we don’t like drugs. But the ends don’t justify the means.’’

Hunker also had supporters at the meeting, which was well attended by police officers and residents alike. Whenever a council member expressed support for the chief, rounds of applause would erupt among his supporters in the chambers.

Kenneth Each, who retired as North Miami police chief in 1997, defended Hunker, his longtime friend, and dismissed The Herald’s reporting of the federal investigation as “a lot of nonsense.’’

“He’s doing the right thing,’’ Each said. “You’re taking the profits away from the dope dealers.’’

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