A former Miami-Dade County police officer, public service aide and two tow-truck operators have been charged in a bribery scheme involving payments of thousands of dollars to gain the inside track in assisting stranded motorists and profiting from costly auto repairs.
The one-time cop, Yuri Millan, who served on the county force for a decade, and the two towing operators, Oriel Ugardes and Jose Guim, made their first appearances in Miami federal court on Tuesday, while the former service aide, Elina Rodriguez, surrendered to authorities last month.
They are among 16 suspects who have been charged over the past year in an FBI investigation into corrupt relationships between local police departments and “pirate” towing businesses, according to federal prosecutor Anthony Lacosta.
Here’s how authorities allege the racket worked: Oriel Ugardes, owner of O&U Towing, and Guim, one of his drivers, were not on the Miami-Dade police’s rotation list for tow-truck companies.
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To jump ahead of those on the list, they paid Millan and Rodriguez from $100 to $300 each for dozens of tow-job referrals mainly between 2013 and 2014, according to an FBI affidavit. The towing operators received the kickbacks to pay the officer and aide from unnamed auto body shops, which made money off repairs.
But under the county’s system, a police officer and service aide can only provide towing assistance to a driver involved in an accident through a dispatcher, who then is required to call tow-truck companies on the official rotation list. Under contract, those legitimate businesses can directly solicit stranded motorists and pay the county $15 for each tow.
In May 2014, FBI agents interviewed Rodriguez about receiving cash payments from Ugardes for steering unlawful towing work to his company, according to the affidavit. Rodriguez, who worked as a a service aide for Miami-Dade police for 17 years, admitted that she received a total of $35,000 in cash bribes from Ugardes since 2009.
Rodriguez, who eventually cooperated with the FBI’s investigation, is scheduled to plead guilty to a conspiracy charge on Dec. 9. The offense carries up to five years in prison.
One month after approaching Rodriguez, agents questioned Millan. After he initially denied taking kickbacks, the police officer admitted receiving bribes, according to the affidavit by FBI special agent Donald Morin.
Millan told agents that he was recruited into the towing-kickback scheme by Guim, a longtime friend. Millan said he provided Guim with three or four accidents a week, but sometimes none, over a five-month period. Millan said he “ultimately grew tired” of the arrangement, so instead he supplied Guim and his boss, Ugardes, with a police-issued encrypted radio to track accident locations.
When Guim told the officer that he lost the radio, he and Ugardes met Millan at Tamiami Park and offered him $3,000 to cover the loss, the affidavit said. Millan said he refused the offer, and instead “borrowed” $1,000 cash from them.
In total, Millan admitted that he “borrowed” between $2,000 and $3,000 from them and accepted another $500 to $600 in cash. But, the affidavit said, the officer admitted he never paid back any of the “borrowed” money.