A former Miami-Dade County police officer, who collaborated with a public service aide and two tow-truck operators, has pleaded guilty to his role 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 officer, Yuri Millan, was convicted on Friday of conspiring to commit bribery and faces up to five years in prison at his federal sentencing in April.
Millan, who was on the county force for a decade, and the two towing operators, Oriel Ugardes and Jose Guim, were charged in November, while the former service aide, Elina Rodriguez, surrendered to authorities in October. Like Millan, the three co-defendants have pleaded guilty in Miami federal court.
They are among about 20 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 say 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.
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 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 eventually cooperated with the FBI’s investigation.
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.