Maybe they were bored.
After all, the wealthy city of Bal Harbour has barely a blip of crime. Still, according to Herald investigative reporters Michael Sallah and Joanna Zuckerman Bernstein, the department’s officers who made up the Tri-County Task Force, created to pursue drug cartels, were plenty busy. So busy that it’s now hard to tell whose side they were on — that of the law or of their own greedy self-interests.
That’s why it’s imperative for the U.S. Department of Justice to step in and determine where any criminal culpability rests. Task-force officers laundered millions of dollars from their undercover operations and spent untold thousands on living the high life. Some have resigned, others are still on the force. That can’t be the end of it. They must be held accountable.
As outlined in the first of the Herald’s three-part series, License to launder, the members of this now-defunct task force, which partnered with the Glades County sheriff’s office, posed as money launderers, supposedly working to expose cartels and other criminal groups. But it became hard to tell the difference between the criminal entities and their alleged law-enforcement pursuers. The task force laundered more than $55 million, but never made any arrests of its own.
Here’s how they worked: The task force used informants, acting as middle men, who struck deals with money brokers, many overseas. They delivered suitcases full of money made from street drug sales to the task-force officers, the “launderers,” who flew to various cities for the hand-off.
The task force would take its cut and, in some cases, pass along a portion to the informants. Task forces are allowed to impose such commissions in order to carry out the ruse — but they aren’t allowed to spend it without court approval. But the process veered off from there.
The task-force officers laundered the money through hundreds of bank accounts and took at least $1.7 million for themselves, and sent the rest back to the criminal groups. Records also show that they spent tens of thousands of dollars to take first-class flights, stay at luxury resorts and buy neat toys such as Mac computers and submachine guns.
Clearly this was an errant operation: There was no prosecutorial supervision, as is required; officers made no arrests on their own; and there’s barely a trace of where the bulk of the commission money went. An ongoing audit has turned up $28 million that appears to have been laundered by the officers and returned to criminal groups, but never disclosed by the task force. It’s only thanks to line items on credit-card statements that some of the funds can be tracked.
Three years ago, the Department of Justice stepped in, troubled that the police department was misspending forfeiture money from seized cars and cash. Then-police chief Tom Hunker eventually resigned. But the DOJ didn’t examine the other huge pool of funds from the task force’s sting operations, and the FBI, alerted to suspicions, ultimately did not follow up, Mr. Sallah says.
Credit the new leaders in Bal Harbour, including Police Chief Mark Overton and Village Manager Jorge Gonzalez, for ordering an audit of the millions that flowed into undercover bank accounts during the laundering sting from 2010 to 2012.
There are too many unanswered questions, and they demand the objective expertise of the Department of Justice. If a crime has been committed, no one, not even men with uniforms and badges, should get away with it.