Bal Harbour Police Chief Thomas Hunker has been suspended with pay following the release of a U.S. Justice Department report that slams the small police agency for allegedly misspending millions in drug money seized from criminals. The report also fingers Hunker for professional misconduct.
Hunker, 61, was sidelined with pay while an outside law enforcement agency investigates the allegations, according to a written statement issued by Jay Smith, the village’s human resources director.
“Chief Hunker requested that an investigation be conducted, and requested to be placed on leave to ensure the integrity of the investigation,’’ the statement said.
Treppeda and Bal Harbour Mayor Jean Rosenfield did not return repeated calls for comment.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
The Justice Department also is looking into Bal Harbour’s handling of millions earned from laundering the money of drug dealers as part of ongoing, undercover investigations of criminal networks around the country.
Hunker, who has been chief since 2003, is about to complete the third year of a four-year employment contract that pays him a base salary of $141,959.80 a year, and provides him with a car, health insurance and a pension plan. In Hunker’s absence, Capt. Michael Daddario has been named acting chief.
In October, The Miami Herald reported that the village police department — a small-town force previously known for writing traffic tickets — conducts undercover operations all over the country targeting drug dealers. Records show the agency doled out $624,558 in payments to informants in less than four years, and ran up $23,704 in one month for cross-country trips with first-class flights and luxury car rentals.
In a rare move, federal agents froze millions that Bal Harbour helped confiscate under the program, and the Justice Department now wants the village to return more than $4 million.
The latest allegations against Hunker are outlined in an investigative report by the Justice Department Office of Inspector General. Among the specifics:
• Hunker conducted unauthorized checks of national criminal records databases for individuals who did not have access to those systems;
• Hunker provided individuals with honorary BHPD badges and identification and has influenced potential arrests and prosecutions;
• Hunker received multiple gifts from people who may have benefitted from the chief’s influence;
• Hunker ordered a police officer out of a marked vehicle and allowed an intoxicated individual to drive the vehicle on the beach;
• Hunker’s wife received a “deal’’ on her personal Jeep after BHPD purchased several police vehicles from the dealership;
• Hunker hired the son of a personal friend who was dismissed from the Miami-Dade Police Academy for cheating;
• BHPD-documented overtime related to money laundering investigations was inflated and abused. Specifically, that [a BHPD sergeant] inflated his overtime so that his pension is currently approximately $130,000 per year;
• BHPD improperly paid its informants.
Hunker referred all questions to his criminal defense attorney, Richard Sharpstein, who said the report reads like an irresponsible work of fiction, and that all the charges against the chief will be disproven.
“It’s shocking and extremely disappointing to think that the Justice Department would release these allegations, which are nothing more than the misdirected and misguided ranting of some obviously disgruntled individuals,’’ Sharpstein said. “They’re going to have egg on their face.’’
According to the report, Bal Harbour police — working in partnership with the Glades County Sheriff’s Office — laundered more than $56 million from 2008 to 2011; they seized approximately $49.7 million during the same period. And while the two agencies claimed 84 arrests, those arrests were actually done by other law enforcement entities, the report states.
Federal agents trying to snare drug dealers typically funnel huge amounts of drug money back to the South American cartels to develop more investigative leads. The problem with Bal Harbour police, according to the Justice Department report, is that the agency does not follow strict federal rules that ensure high-level arrests and cap the amount of undercover money that can be sent back to drug kingpins.
Bal Harbour police laundered money without adequate written policies, with no prosecutorial oversight, and with no audits of the undercover bank accounts, according to the Justice Department report.
Thomas Roell, a retired Miami-Dade assistant state attorney who served as acting director of the South Florida Money Laundering Strike Force — a federally-sponsored, multi-agency task force that Hunker once led — told a Justice Department investigator that the actions of the Bal Harbour-Glades County unit “have hindered the success’’ of the strike force, the report states.
For years, Bal Harbour’s department of 30 officers, serving a village of 2,574 people, has participated in a federal forfeiture program that allows cops to seize cash, boats, cars and other possessions from suspected drug dealers and money launderers — and keep a cut of the proceeds.
While small police departments rarely venture beyond their borders, Bal Harbour’s force has become a massive cash generator, infiltrating drug organizations across the country with no connection to the coastal village.
Armed with a team of snitches and undercover cops, the vice unit makes few arrests, but seizes a fortune in cash every year. In 2011, Bal Harbour led all police agencies in Florida in the amount of money received through federal forfeitures: $5.1 million.
For the past year, though, the village has been forced to turn over reams of records for a grueling audit that resulted from Bal Harbour’s refusal to cooperate with a routine compliance review, according to the Justice Department’s report.
The findings are now under review by Justice Department prosecutors.
As a result of the investigative findings, the village is now being forced to return $3.1 million — the village’s cut of the seized drug money in fiscal 2011 — $407,969 in additional proceeds and another $709,836 in money that was not supposed to be spent on salaries and benefits.
Treppeda has said that the village has only about $2 million left in seized cash.
Brian Mulheren, president of the Bal Harbour Citizens Coalition, a volunteer group of residents, said the allegations against Hunker are troubling, but that village leaders also should be held accountable for the police department’s failings.
“You don’t scapegoat just the chief,’’ Mulheren said of Hunker’s suspension. “The village manager, the finance director, the village attorney and the village elected officials all knew about this.’’