A widening FBI investigation of the Sweetwater Police Department has already taken its toll, with two officers being relieved of duty for alleged misconduct, according to people familiar with the case.
The disciplinary action has rattled the small west Miami-Dade city — a town of nearly 21,000 residents founded decades ago by Russian circus midgets — in the aftermath of last month’s arrest of Mayor Manuel Maroño on unrelated extortion charges.
Detective Octavio Oliu and Acting Sgt. Reny Garcia were relieved of duty with pay, but Sweetwater police officials on Wednesday refused to explain the reason for their discipline.
Oliu, who had been fired for a “moral character violation” from his previous job as a Miami-Dade County officer in 2007, was hired by the Sweetwater Police Department in 2010. Garcia joined the 24-member force in 2006.
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Also relieved of duty Wednesday: Richard Brenner, a civilian employee who has worked as a red-light camera monitor and is a member of the department’s police auxiliary since 2011. But according to sources, Brenner was suspended because he was working as a Sweetwater police officer, including making arrests, without being a sworn member of the department.
Sweetwater Police Chief Roberto Fulgueira declined to comment when asked whether the disciplinary action against the two officers was part of a bigger FBI investigation into his department.
Fulgueira did comment about Brenner’s case, saying he has assisted with the detective bureau’s investigations. “He was working with Oliu while he was working as a police auxiliary officer,” the chief said.
In a recent lawsuit filed against the city of Sweetwater, a special-needs teacher identified Oliu and Brenner as the police officers who arrested him at a school outside their jurisdiction after the teacher posted a Facebook remark that was critical of their police department. Daniel Larosa was charged with “corruption by threat against a public servant” in 2012, after he had posted the remark, which said: “It’s Sweetwater pd that’s gotta die!!! Lol.” The state attorney’s office declined to prosecute Larosa.
The disciplinary action came one week after the FBI arrested a Sweetwater police detective on charges of credit-card fraud and identity theft. Officer William Garcia, suspended without pay, was accused of using phony credit cards at Miami Beach, Key Largo and other South Florida establishments, and stealing other people’s card numbers.
The FBI’s anti-corruption agents have been building a broader case around the three officers, including gathering computer and other records from the Sweetwater Police Department and questioning police and other city officials since last week, according to sources.
In a press statement, Sweetwater spokeswoman Michelle Hammontree-Garcia said the suspensions of Oliu and Reny Garcia were not related to the arrest of William Garcia. But she declined further comment. She also said Mayor Jose M. Diaz and Chief Fulgueira would answer media questions after the city commission’s meeting on Monday.
Last month, Sweetwater was rocked by scandal when FBI agents arrested Maroño at City Hall. The mayor was charged, along with his lobbyist friend, Jorge Forte, and another lobbyist, Richard Candia, for their alleged roles in a bogus scheme to fleece the U.S. government of community grant money.
The FBI’s case against William Garcia, who joined the Sweetwater force in 1997, revolved around the arrest of an informant who had once supplied information to the detective and then turned against him in an undercover role for the feds. The informant, who allegedly made counterfeit credit cards in cahoots with Garcia, set him up, according to the detective’s lawyer, Richard Sharpstein.
But an FBI affidavit portrayed Garcia as a dirty cop at the center of a counterfeit credit-card scheme in late 2010 through 2011.
Among Garcia’s alleged crimes: He used his own credit card to manufacture fraudulent credit cards with his informant and hid the informant’s laptop computer containing stolen credit card numbers after the informant was arrested.
Ultimately, Garcia used counterfeit credit cards that he claimed he seized from a suspect during his police duties, according to the affidavit filed with a criminal complaint by Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony Lacosta.
El Nuevo Herald staff writer Enrique Flor contributed to this story.