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Miami Beach police close politically charged internal probe

Miami Beach police closed a controversial and politically charged internal affairs probe Monday and ruled that a major tried to influence a drunk-driving case against an ex-wife’s brother.

Prosecutors declined to charge Maj. Angel Vazquez criminally with witness-tampering, Deputy Chief Mark Overton told The Miami Herald. But the department has recommended that Vazquez receive a letter of reprimand after he admitted to approaching the officer who arrested his former brother-in-law before a hearing on the case.

Officer Steven Cosner told internal affairs that Vazquez found him at the Richard E. Gerstein Courthouse before an October 2010 hearing and wanted him to change his testimony to help quash a case against Jason McFarland, whom Cosner arrested for DUI in Miami Beach in March of that year.

“The way it felt from, from where I was sitting was he, he was basically asking me to lie to the state attorney,” Cosner said.

Vazquez told investigators he did approach Cosner before an October hearing on the McFarland case, but that he only wanted to ask Cosner not to milk the case to gain court overtime, a practice known as “collars for dollars.”

“At no time did I tell him to drop it. At no time did I tell him to downplay it, reduce it,” Vazquez said.

Overton said Vazquez, currently the major in charge of operations, was nevertheless found to have committed an “inappropriate influence” of his position.

As for McFarland, attorney Michael Mirer said in an email that “McFarland never received any preferential treatment. In fact he was treated as any [first-time] offender would be and offered the Back on Track program,” which allows offenders to downgrade a DUI charge to reckless driving and eventually have their record sealed.

The case became a public lightning rod Wednesday after a city commissioner alleged during a public and televised meeting that Police Chief Raymond Martinez was also implicated in the probe.

Commissioner Ed Tobin did not specifically say what Martinez, who took over the police force in March with the stated goal to “reform the department and ensure greater accountability of our officers,” had been accused of.

He said he either read the allegation on, an Internet forum for police officers, or “someone said it to me.”

Still, commissioners voted to request that the Miami-Dade Police Department’s internal affairs unit conduct its own investigation.

“We shouldn’t have the police officers in our own police department investigating their supervisors,” said Tobin, an outspoken critic of Martinez.

City Manager Jorge Gonzalez also revealed that, after prodding emails from Tobin, he had sent the internal affairs file to Miami-Dade ethics commission Executive Director Joseph Centorino for review and guidance.

Miami-Dade police declined the commission’s request, saying Beach police already had an open investigation. Centorino accepted the file.

On Monday, Miami Beach police gave The Herald transcripts from Vazquez, Cosner and witness Officer Robert Silvagni. Police said they inadvertently gave an incomplete copy of Cosner’s transcript to a reporter, but a full copy would show that the officer did not make any allegations against the police chief.

“I’d just like to make it clear that there isn’t an allegation against me,” Martinez told commissioners Wednesday. “This is a concern the commissioner raised after he read a blog,” Martinez said, emphasizing the last word.

Martinez was sworn in as top cop in March after several high-profile mishaps in the department, including a drunken officer’s July 3 ATV joyride with a bachelorette that ended in a crash that sent two beachgoers to the hospital in serious condition.

Both crash victims have sued the city, and Officer Derick Kuilan was fired and charged with driving under the influence and reckless driving with serious bodily injury

Martinez said he was taking over the department with reform in mind. And within 10 days of officially assuming control of the roughly 360-member department, Martinez drew the ire of the police union when he publicly announced that an officer caught speeding on the beach and another accused of drinking in his squad car had been relieved of duty.

Were it true, Tobin’s assertion that Martinez was implicated in the Vazquez probe would mean that the new chief was quietly under scrutiny even as city commissioners voted him in as a reforming police chief.

But Martinez said the public documents will show that Tobin is wrong.

“The allegation doesn’t implicate me,” he said Monday night. Cosner “doesn’t make any comment against me.”