In Bal Harbour, a village that reported 34 criminal offenses and zero arrests during the first six months of 2012, a handful of police officers assigned to an elite unit each logged hundreds of hours of overtime last year, nearly doubling their salaries and boosting their pensions in a way the federal government has called inflated and abusive.
If a village has so little crime, then why are police officers putting in for so much OT?
The answer is that the officers were assigned to the department’s Vice, Intelligence and Narcotics unit, whose members traveled the country, partnering with other agencies to investigate drug trafficking and money laundering far outside the village’s borders.
When money was seized by the cops, it went to the federal government, which disbursed chunks of it back to local police departments involved in the operation.
The Bal Harbour unit, now under investigation by the Justice Department, became a cash juggernaut, helping grab millions from bad guys, and getting large piles of money back from the feds.
No. 1 on money list
In 2011, the small police department collected $5.1 million in federal forfeitures, more than any other law enforcement agency in Florida.
A healthy portion of those proceeds was funneled back into overtime — $255,000 last year alone for six overtime-eligible officers within the VIN unit — despite an explicit warning from the village attorney’s office in January 2011 that the money could not be used for that purpose.
Some criminal justice experts have expressed amazement that a police department serving a village of about 2,500 residents would be engaging in money laundering and drug trafficking investigations all over the map.
“Unless this is a town that is largely populated by Mexican cocaine dealers, then there is no justification,’’ said Dennis Kenney, a former police officer and now a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. “It sounds like a racket.
“It sounds like these guys had their own little business running, and they had their own source of funding that they were creating,’’ he said. “A little private business tapping into federal asset funds. This had very little to do with the city and very little to do with policing.”
Bal Harbour, an affluent, oceanfront enclave known for its speed traps and luxury mall, the Bal Harbour Shops, doesn’t have much of a drug problem, or any other type of crime, according to statistics kept by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Of the 34 crimes reported during the first six months of 2012, 31 were larcenies and three were burglaries. There were no reported murders, robberies, rapes or car thefts.
What was accomplished by the VIN unit, besides generating dollars and overtime, is not clear from public records.
In three years of operations, members of the unit made no arrests related to money laundering, produced no investigative reports, and presented no cases for prosecution, according to the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General.
Police Chief Thomas Hunker, who started the unit in 2003, has been suspended by the village, with pay, until the investigation has run its course.
Hunker declined to comment for this story, but his criminal defense attorney, Richard Sharpstein, said the VIN unit officers earned their overtime traveling to other cities for investigations, conducting surveillance, picking up money and counting it.
“Their overtime comes from seizures and forfeiture,’’ he said.
Chief in spotlight
In addition to questioning Bal Harbour’s overtime, the government says the chief may have made unauthorized checks of national criminal databases; improperly influenced arrests and prosecutions; and received gifts from people who benefited from his position.
The department’s overtime statistics also raised eyebrows at the Drug Enforcement Administration, an investigative partner, where an agent expressed astonishment at the hours cops were submitting.
From a May 2011 email to Bal Harbour Capt. Greg Roye: “Good thing you and Vargas don’t have to justify 4,200 hours!! COME ON MAN.’’
The DEA agent who sent the email declined to comment.
When asked by federal investigators why he claimed so many hours, Roye, who is exempt from overtime but supervises cops who are eligible to collect it, answered that he thought he was allowed to list a running total of hours spent on all operations, and not just the hours specific to a single case or seizure.
Richard Crock, a retired supervisory agent for the DEA, said his agents worked many cases with Bal Harbour police that led to “significant enforcement results” in the Atlanta area.
He declined to specify, but said: “You’re going to find these types of cases require a lot of latitude for the personnel to work when they need to work.’’
Bryan Vila, a retired Los Angeles police officer and now a criminal justice professor at the Washington State University Spokane, agreed, saying: “People working dope investigations often work substantially more than 1,000 hours of overtime a year.’’
Members of Bal Harbour’s VIN unit each logged hundreds of hours of overtime a year, and provided little in the way of explanation.
Hundreds of forms filled out and signed by six members of the elite unit — Alejandro Alvarez, Paul Deitado, Paul Eppler, Hector Gonzalez, Edwin Vargas and Jack Young — list only the date, number of overtime hours worked, and, in a space reserved for remarks, the acronym “VIN”.
The six officers soaked up nearly half of the $608,000 spent on overtime in 2012 by the department, which has 29 sworn officers and eight civilian staff.
It was not an aberration. Since 2009, the same six officers raked in more than $1.1 million collectively in overtime — more than half of the $2.1 million spent overall by the department during the same period.
A clue to the work performed by Bal Harbour police on such cases can be gleaned from the applications they submitted to receive shares of the seized cash.
Nashville to L.A.
The application form, called a DAG-71, includes questions about the intended law enforcement use for the requested funds, and the level of assistance provided to the operation by the requesting agency.
Many of the forms state that Bal Harbour officers partnered with federal agents on cash pickups, stakeouts and arrests in places ranging from Nashville to Chicago to New York to Los Angeles.
Bal Harbour police officers provided background names, phone numbers and other leads to federal agencies, such as the DEA. And they served search warrants, and provided manpower for operations, according to the brief DAG-71 narratives.
But the forms do not indicate how many or which VIN unit officers worked the cases, or whether they earned overtime.
Bal Harbour officers routinely claimed that they worked thousands of hours on individual cases that rarely lasted more than one month.
Under federal guidelines regulating the use of cash seized from suspected criminals, police departments are not allowed to spend those seized funds for salaries or benefits — particularly when the benefits go to the same officers whose investigations led to the cash being seized.
The idea is to keep police departments in the business of “serve and protect,” and not turn them into profit centers for cities and towns.
A January 2011 email to Hunker from Douglas Gonzales, a lawyer in the village attorney’s office, spelled out the permissible and prohibited uses for the funds, specifically citing overtime as one of the uses that were “inappropriate and prohibited.”
The memo was not heeded.
Bal Harbour police officials declined to comment for this story, citing the ongoing investigation by the Justice Department.
Among the laundry list of alleged misconduct cited by federal investigators: that documented overtime by Bal Harbour police was “inflated and abused.’’
The Justice Department singled out the overtime of Sgt. Deitado, a cop with more than 20 years on the force, who logged 933 hours of overtime in 2012, bumping his regular pay of $86,777 a year by more than 76 percent, or $66,617.
In 2011, Deitado’s overtime earnings exceeded $90,000. Ditto for 2010.
Deitado declined to comment for this story, as did his supervisor, Capt. Mike Daddario, who was appointed acting chief after Hunker stepped aside.
“The village has retained legal counsel to investigate all aspects of the DOJ investigation,’’ Daddario said in an email to The Herald. “Due to the ongoing nature of this investigation, I will not be able to comment.’’
Though the Justice Department has not filed criminal charges against anyone in the Bal Harbour department, it did suspend the village from the federal forfeiture program, and demanded the prompt return of more than $4 million the village had received.
Village officials returned about $1.3 million of that in December. They are negotiating a settlement for the rest. They also disbanded the VIN unit.
Officers previously assigned to VIN were reassigned to patrol duty or administrative roles.
Bal Harbour also suspended all police overtime — except for emergencies or when officers must stay late to finish a case, attend court, or fill a staffing shortage.