More than a decade ago, a group of South Florida undercover police — touted as the nation’s most successful task force on money laundering — came under attack by federal authorities who said it laundered as much drug cash as it seized, and made no significant arrests.
In the 1990s, current Bal Harbour Police Chief Thomas Hunker was the operations chief of the unit, known as South Florida Interagency Metropolitan Anti-Crime Task Force, or IMPACT. Hunker declined a request for comment through his attorney.
Worried that IMPACT focused more on making money for its member agencies than on snaring major drug dealers, a committee of federal and state law enforcement agencies reviewed the task force in 2000 and developed a set of recommendations to help ensure that operations were well-documented and periodically audited.
Today, Bal Harbour police followed few, if any of the recommendations, according to Justice Department investigators.
James Butler, a retired Coral Gables police chief and former director of IMPACT, told U.S. Justice Department investigators probing the Bal Harbour Police Department that Hunker “pushed the envelope’’ with money laundering investigations, and that Hunker shopped his operations to federal agencies without informing the task force that Bal Harbour belonged to.
Hunker had a falling out with the group of undercover cops over his use of confidential informants who had been turned over to the task force by another federal law enforcement agency.
“Tommy said they were his informants,’’ Butler said. “The bottom line is they were recruited and worked for the task force.’’
The group of five or six informants ended up leaving the task force, and signing up with Hunker.
“They’re independent people,’’ Butler said, “and maybe that’s where the shopping came in, maybe offer them a higher percentage.’’
Bal Harbour ultimately parted ways with the money laundering task force, and Hunker launched his own undercover group.
“Mainly they left because they thought they could get better percentages with other agencies by contracting them directly instead of going through the task force,’’ Butler said. “That’s not illegal, but, well, I’m not going to get into that.’’
Timothy Wagner, director of the South Florida High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a federal program that coordinates multi-agency law enforcement efforts, said there is no law that prohibits local police departments from forming independent task forces. And he added that South Florida money laundering operations frequently have connections around the country and the world
But he cautioned that federal guidelines are there for a reason: to help keep cops honest, and to guard against the appearance of wrongdoing.
“The reason for these stringent controls is certainly underscored by all these questions,’’ he said of the Justice Department’s investigation of Bal Harbour. “You have to be so careful with this process, and not everybody likes to work with the level of security that we use. But it certainly makes life easier.
“It’s better to be very, very tight,’’ he said, “and adhere to a tight set of rules and multiple layers of oversight before you do anything as controversial as money laundering.’’