March 6, 2013

End near for embattled Bal Harbour police chief

Bal Harbour Chief Thomas Hunker was known as a top-notch investigator — until he and his department were investigated for allegedly misspending funds.

When an anonymous letter alleged “positive proof” that cheating had occurred during a 2011 sergeant’s exam for the Bal Harbour Police Department, Chief Thomas Hunker called an “all hands” meeting of the 30-member force and induced every officer present to provide a DNA cheek swab — so he could unmask the unnamed author.

And when two condo dwellers, one a prominent former banker, went to court over a shoving match in the lobby of the Balmoral on Collins Avenue, Hunker called the judge in an effort to influence the outcome.

A hardnosed, decorated South Florida cop who took charge of the Bal Harbour Police Department 10 years ago, Hunker was used to doing things his way — until he butted heads with the U.S. Justice Department last year.

That drawn-out battle is expected to cost Hunker his job, possibly as early as Thursday.

The Justice Department alleges that Bal Harbour police, under Hunker’s direction, mishandled millions received under a federal forfeiture program. The money, totaling $7.3 million over three years, was generated by village police partnering with federal agencies to investigate drug dealers and money launderers far outside the boundaries of Bal Harbour, a relatively crime-free oceanside town of about 2,500.

When cash was seized, participating agencies got a cut of the loot.

But Bal Harbour has been suspended from the program, and the feds have demanded the village return more than $4 million.

Justice Department investigators say Bal Harbour misspent that money on unjustified overtime and lavish travel, and improper payments to confidential informants. The money also went to cover salaries and benefits for two undercover investigators, and to purchase expensive toys: $100,000 for a police power boat; $225,000 for a sleek surveillance truck.

Suspended with pay since December, the 61-year-old Hunker is now negotiating a severance with Bal Harbour, said his attorney, Richard Sharpstein.

Brash and outspoken, Hunker blames the federal investigation on professional jealousy rooted in his well-established success bringing millions in forfeited cash back to little Bal Harbour.

Now, Hunker is trapped in a no-man’s land: under investigation, and the subject of allegations of misconduct contained in a scathing 12-page report released by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General.

Sharpstein called the allegations “innuendo” and “a witch hunt to destroy Tom Hunker completely, unnecessarily.’’

Although no one has accused Hunker of pocketing money, Justice Department investigators say he interfered with arrests and prosecutions, accepted gifts from individuals who could have benefited from his position, and conducted unauthorized checks of criminal databases for people who did not have access to those systems.

Sources familiar with the investigation have grumbled that Bal Harbour cops were fixated on seizing cash to the detriment of the broader goal of breaking up large criminal networks by making arrests and indicting suspects. The federal report noted that Bal Harbour, in its years in the program, never made a single arrest.

In addition to alleging that village police inflated their overtime and racked up lavish expenses, the Justice Department report seemed to go out of its way to slam Hunker.

Investigators said he allowed a drunk friend — a civilian — to drive a police cruiser on the beach; got his wife a “deal” on a Jeep from an auto dealership that did business with the department; and that he hired the son of another friend after the aspiring lawman had washed out at the police academy by, among other transgressions, cheating on a first-aid test.

It wasn’t immediately clear what these allegations of misconduct had to do with the feds or their money — although large portions of the report were redacted as secret. Initially, Hunker was dismissive of the investigation, and he steadfastly denied wrongdoing.

The car dealer, for one, called the allegation about the Jeep deal nonsense. Steve Fury, finance director of Hollywood Chrysler Jeep, said Hunker “never asked for any special favors.”

Said Sharpstein: “He’s a straight-shooting cop.”

Talented investigator

There are plenty of law enforcement officers who think Thomas Hunker is a first-rate investigator.

“In my dealings with him, I’ve seen nothing but effectiveness and aggressiveness,’’ said Richard Crock a retired supervisory agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration who worked cases with Hunker.

“He had a real good talent for investigations,’’ added Richard Barreto, a retired Miami Beach police chief who once supervised Hunker.

Thanks to Hunker’s prowess at generating dollars through federal forfeiture, Bal Harbour police had money to burn at a time when other cities and towns were scrimping through the recession.

Hunker also was able to pay tens of thousands of dollars in overtime to officers engaged in forfeiture investigations.

Those officers were members of an elite crew called the VIN unit, for vice, intelligence and narcotics. Some in the unit, created by Hunker, were able to double their pay.

The money also enabled Hunker to engage in charitable endeavors and build a network of influential friends. He spent thousands on group golf outings and dinners for the Miami-Dade Association of Chiefs of Police; solicited sponsorships and donations for the annual LEO Awards gala that recognizes local law enforcement officers; and doled out $20,000 to the South Florida Crime Commission, a nonprofit controlled by a friend and vendor doing business with the police department.

The influential friends whom Hunker cultivated over the years are now paying his legal bills through a private defense fund.

Friends and donors who supported Hunker’s charitable events reaped rewards — honorary BHPD badges and identification — not the kind that comes in a Cracker Jack box, but genuine shields specially made by a police supply house. He also bestowed badges on individuals registered as lobbyists with the village or who did business with the village.

Among the recipients:

• Stanley Whitman, owner of the Bal Harbour Shops; his son, Randall Whitman, and grandson, Matthew Lazenby — all of whom are registered lobbyists;
• Argentine soccer star Lionel Messi, who gave Bal Harbour police two autographed soccer balls to be auctioned for the Police Athletic League;
• Joe Dippell, a retired stock broker and philanthropist who lives part time in Bal Harbour and has donated generously to police chief dinners, golf outings and other law enforcement events;
• Luis Salom, a Miami Beach entrepreneur who considers Hunker a childhood mentor and donated to the chief’s annual Beach Bash, a drug awareness and education event. (He returned his badge after pleading guilty to falsifying a federal seal in 2011. Hunker testified as a character witness at Salom’s sentencing.);
• Beau Parrillo, vice president of United Auto Insurance Company, and a benefactor to local police causes, such as the Bal Harbour PAL and the annual LEO Awards. Hunker’s eldest son works as an attorney for UAIC;
• Lewis Nadel, an executive with the Broward security firm International Surveillance Technology, Inc.

Nadel is an example of how Hunker’s police work and charitable endeavors intertwine. Nadel is president the South Florida Crime Commission, a group that received $20,000 in donations from Bal Harbour’s forfeiture funds that by law only Hunker can request to spend.

In July 2010, Bal Harbour police bought the “mobile command” from International Surveillance Technology for $108,000. It looks like a futuristic mobile home. The department then spent an additional $119,000 over the following five months on bells and whistles, such as a retractable video scope, a camera, satellite receiver, audio equipment and a flatscreen TV.

Village police said they use the vehicle for covert surveillance, and as a command station in the event of natural disasters or large events — although there aren’t many of those in Bal Harbour, a quiet town that had 34 reported crimes over the first six months of 2012, 31 of them larcenies.

A friend of Hunker’s for about 20 years, Nadel said he received his honorary BHPD badge and identification as “an acknowledgement of good done.’’

Offending a judge

In January 2010, Hunker briefly intervened in a court fight with another South Florida power player, former banker David Paul, and in the process raised the hackles of a circuit court judge.

Judge Mark King Leban was hearing a battery complaint lodged by Paul, once a major community and civic leader until he went to prison for fraud in the mid-1990s for looting the now-defunct CenTrust Bank.

Paul had complained that he was assaulted by Yakov Telyas, a fellow resident of the Balmoral on Collins. Paul said Telyas ordered him to shut up during meetings and shoved him against a glass door.

During the hearing, Judge Leban told Paul that Hunker had tried to influence the case.

“I got a telephone call from the Chief of Police,’’ Leban said, according to the transcript. “I was a little surprised. Hunker, Tom Hunker, the other day and Mr. Hunker, Chief Hunker basically told me that there is nothing to this, that he’s been out there many times, that there have been all kinds of problems and that I’ll see that this is … he didn’t use the word garbage. The intent of his call in my opinion was an attempt to influence me to deny this petition. And I told him that I didn’t think it was appropriate...”

Sharpstein denied that the chief had tried to meddle in the court case.

“He was trying to get him the facts,’’ the lawyer said.

Questionable hire

One of Hunker’s departmental hires was cited in the Justice Department report.

Alejandro Alvarez, Jr. joined the Bal Harbour police in 2006 despite having crashed and burned as a trainee with the Miami-Dade Police Department a year earlier. The report said Hunker is a personal friend of Alvarez’s father, a Miami-Dade officer-turned-lawyer.

Alvarez Jr. had an ignominious stint lasting less than a year with Miami-Dade: He repeatedly showed up late for work, behaved unprofessionally by dancing and playing music loudly in class at the academy, and was caught cheating while taking an exam on first aid for police officers.

Eight months after he was dumped by Miami-Dade, he was hired by Hunker.

Sharpstein said Hunker never knew Alvarez was terminated as a Miami-Dade trainee for failure to meet standards.

“It’s not on the record,’’ he said, “and it didn’t come up in a background check.’’

The Herald was able to obtain the information by requesting Alvarez’s personnel files from Miami-Dade.

Sharpstein said Alvarez was “recommended and referred by Izzy Reyes.’’

Reyes is retired Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Israel Reyes, who stepped down from the bench in 2011. Reyes did not return a call for comment.

Alvarez Jr. scored high marks on the 2011 sergeant’s test — the same test in which the anonymous letter alleged cheating, naming Alvarez and two others.

An internal investigation ordered by Hunker deemed the allegation of cheating unfounded.

And despite the DNA tests on every department employee, the letter writer’s identity was never discovered.

Alvarez was promoted to sergeant. He also was part of the elite, money-generating VIN unit, making as much as $45,000 a year in overtime, until it was disbanded.

Severance pay

Hunker is in the last year of his current contract, which pays him a base of $141,959.80 a year, and provides him with an SUV, health insurance and a pension. Under that contract, Hunker is eligible for a severance payout of 20 weeks of salary, or about $54,500, plus accrued vacation and holiday time — an additional $44,000 — and health insurance for six months past his date of termination. He also is in line to receive a deferred 6 percent raise, retroactive to Jan. 1, 2010, which would have bumped his salary by $11,200.

But Hunker gets all of that only if he ends his employment with the village on good terms.

If Hunker resigns or is fired for misconduct, Bal Harbour owes him only the accrued vacation and holiday time, and the deferred raise, or a total of about $55,000.

The negotiations are ongoing.

“No matter what the future brings,’’ Sharpstein said, “he wants to clear his name.”

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