Troubled over what he called an errant police sting operation, Bal Harbour Mayor Martin Packer said he would push for a federal investigation into the money-laundering unit that took in millions from drug organizations but never made any arrests while spending lavishly on first-class flights and luxury resorts.
Just days after a Miami Herald series revealed widespread problems with a special operation run by Bal Harbour police, the mayor said during a packed council meeting on Tuesday that the village would press for answers to the whereabouts of hundreds of thousands that remain unaccounted for.
“If there are any misdeeds, they should be followed up and prosecuted,” he said.
The mayor delivered his comments moments before residents took to the lectern during the meeting to press for answers into what was known as the Tri-County Task Force, which charged criminal groups tens of thousands a month to launder drug cash.
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The Herald found that members of the task force took in $55.6 million for drug organizations during the investigation from 2010 to the end of 2012, using some of the money it charged the groups to pay for travel, including 21 first-class flights and bookings at four-star hotels in places like Las Vegas and San Juan.
Records also show the task force, which consisted of Bal Harbour and the Glades County Sheriff’s Office, withdrew hundreds of thousands from undercover accounts without leaving any records of where the money went.
One resident blamed previous village council members for allowing the unit to be created by former Police Chief Tom Hunker and for failing to provide oversight.
“Not even our attorney did anything to stop it,” said Lynne Bloch-Mullen. “This time, the people will not stand by you.”
Another resident, Brian Mulheren, director of the Bal Harbour Citizen’s Coalition, said the village never imposed the kinds of checks and balances on the task force necessary to ensure that the millions generated during the sting were accounted for.
“There were no audits,” he said.
Hunker said in interviews with the Herald that the task force did nothing wrong, and that it passed along information to federal agents who made numerous arrests and drug seizures
The task force disbanded in 2012 after a U.S. Justice Department inquiry found the Bal Harbour department misspent money from seizures of cars and cash on police salaries, but federal agents never examined the much larger pool of funds that were taken in during the laundering operation.
Village Manager Jorge Gonzalez, who was hired in 2013, told the crowd that he pushed for an audit in November to look into the millions that flowed through the accounts “because unfortunately, it was not covered by the FBI,” he said.
Since then, he said, the exam has “turned up more questions than answers.”
He pledged to the gathering that the audit will continue and that “if there were criminal actions, we will make sure whoever is responsible will be prosecuted to the fullest.”
Mulheren, a former New York City detective, said the council should press for an investigation by the Justice Department in Washington and the Florida attorney general’s office.
“We're going to clean things up,” he said.
Jim Marshall, a spokesman for the FBI’s Miami office, said he could not confirm that the agency was investigating.