A typical operation would begin with a task force informant receiving a phone call from a money broker, who acted as a middle man between the drug dealer and the money launderer. One of the task force’s undercover detectives would then arrange to pick up the cash, and coordinate the operation with DEA agents.
But DEA agents rarely took possession of the cash. Instead, task force detectives would deposit the money into undercover bank accounts maintained by Bal Harbour police. According to Justice Department investigators, Bal Harbour never audited those undercover bank accounts.
From the undercover bank accounts, the money would be wired throughout the country according to the money broker’s instructions.
Divvying it up
The role of DEA agents was to conduct surveillance of the people who dropped off the money to the undercover detective, and then make the arrests, according to the Justice Department.
Any money associated with the arrest was then subject to federal asset forfeiture.
Once the seized cash was released by a judge, the Justice Department kept 20 percent and distributed the remainder to the participating law enforcement agencies in line with the amount of hours, intelligence and personnel each contributed to the operation.
In three years, the Bal Harbour-led task force conducted 227 money pickups and laundered $56.2 million, the Justice Department said..
In conjunction with the pickups, the task force claimed 84 arrests and $49.7 million in cash seized.
But those arrests were conducted by other agencies, and Hunker was unable to provide federal investigators with a single example where task force cases were presented for prosecution by the Florida State Attorney’s Office.
What’s more, according to the Justice Department, Bal Harbour officers routinely inflated the hours worked on each operation, citing 2,000 hours in some cases and 4,000 hours on others.
In one email exchange between a Bal Harbour police captain and a DEA agent in May 2011, the federal agent writes to the village officer regarding the amount of time claimed: “Good thing you and Vargas don’t have to justify 4,200 hours!! COME ON MAN.’’
When asked by federal investigators why he claimed so many hours on the forms, the Bal Harbour police captain answered that he thought he was allowed to list a running total of hours spent on all money laundering investigations, and not just the hours specific to one operation.
Timothy Wagner, director of the South Florida High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a federal program that coordinates multi-agency law enforcement efforts, said federal agencies have very specific guidelines for undercover investigations of money laundering and drug trafficking.
If a law enforcement agency wants to form a task force under the HIDTA umbrella, he said, that agency must present a strategy with “a worthy end game.’’
“We look for the organizations that you’ve dismantled,’’ he said. “Arrests and seizures are a means to an end. The endgame in a HIDTA world is to disrupt and dismantle organizations that are trafficking in drugs or drug money or drug violence.’’
Bal Harbour police’s endgame was not so much about building criminal cases as it was about seizing cash, said Brian Mulheren, a resident of Carleton Terrace and a retired officer with the New York Police Department.
“Why would we be connected to Glades County that’s nowhere near us when there’s a task force in Miami that we should be part of,’’ Mulheren said. “It’s not for the benefit of the residents of Bal Harbour, and not for the benefit of the residents of Glades County, but to go out and get money.’’