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.