Flush with millions of dollars seized from drug dealers, Bal Harbour police financed a freewheeling spending spree: $3,200 for a Miami-Dade police chiefs golf outing at Miami Shores Country Club; $1,000 for two nights’ stay at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico; and thousands more in sumptuous meals at Carpaccio Restaurant in the Bal Harbour Shoppes.
There were trips galore to Home Depot and Party City, for items such as cooking fuel and folding tables and chairs; to Publix and BJs Wholesale Club for food platters, dessert trays and picnic supplies; to BrandsMart USA for a flat-screen TV, a microwave oven and other appliances.
What did these expenses have to do with the department’s duty of serving and protecting Bal Harbour?
Little to nothing, according to the findings of an investigative report released last week by the U.S. Department of Justice that slams a Bal Harbour police task force that traveled the country picking up drug cash and laundering it during undercover investigations. The Justice Department said the task force laundered more money for criminals than it seized, and made no significant arrests or prosecutions — but spent the cash it did seize lavishly on salaries and benefits for officers, exceeding government spending guidelines with first-class flights, luxury car rentals and posh lodgings during undercover operations.
Catered DUI stops
Even when police were not working undercover, they tapped federal forfeiture funds to buy hundreds of dollars worth of pizzas, sodas and snacks for Mothers Against Drunk Driving events or Crime Watch meetings, and they pulled out all the stops for DUI checkpoints, which frequently became occasions for catered cookouts for the cops, according to Bal Harbour credit card statements.
Expense records show Bal Harbour police routinely spent hundreds and sometimes thousands on party supplies and other items that had little to do with actual law enforcement, such as $1,500 worth of Apple iPads and accessories purchased at the Aventura Mall in August 2011 for a drug-prevention event.
Bal Harbour officials have declined to comment on the array of purchases made under Police Chief Thomas Hunker, who is accused of professional misconduct in the Justice Department’s investigative report. He was suspended with pay by the village last week.
Bal Harbour’s mayor, Jean Rosenfield, said she will reserve judgment on Hunker pending the outcome of an investigation into related allegations that the chief sold his influence for gifts, interfered with arrests and prosecutions, and landed a deal on his wife’s personal Jeep after the police department bought several vehicles from the same dealership.
“People can allege anything,’’ she said. “I want to know where these allegations came from.’’
However, some Bal Harbour residents said they are outraged by the Justice Department’s report and the revelations that the village police are conducting undercover operations in far-flung locations that have nothing to do with their small coastal community.
“This is Southern Florida,’’ said Neil Alter, who lives in the Balmoral complex. “Why are we pursuing criminals and drug traffickers who are on the West Coast of the United States? To what degree does it serve the Bal Harbour community?’’