At least a half-dozen Miami police officers have been targeted by the FBI for their alleged roles in providing protection for a Liberty City sports gambling operation that was uncovered more than a year ago, according to authorities familiar with the case.
At least one Miami officer has been relieved of duty in connection with the investigation into the bookmaking business, which has been shut down, authorities said. The targeted officers were working off-duty details at a commercial business.
The initial probe by the FBI, which has been assisted by the police department, evolved into a broader investigation involving some of the officers. Arrests of at least six — and possibly more — Miami officers are expected early next year, according to authorities.
At the same time, the FBI is investigating other law enforcement officers around Miami-Dade who are suspected of participating in identity theft and tax refund schemes. Arrests in those cases are also on the horizon.
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In the Miami investigation, neither Police Chief Manuel Orosa nor a departmental spokesman returned calls for comment. The department has refused to provide The Miami Herald with requested information on officers relieved of duty.
Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado said he did not know details of the investigation. But he tried to cast it in a positive light.
“To me, this investigation is not a black eye to the city or the police department. It’s a good thing. It means we’re moving forward with a better police force,” Regalado told The Miami Herald.
City Commission Chairman Francis Suarez, however, said he would be requesting additional information to make sure the case does not reflect a systemic problem with the department or its leadership.
“Certainly, this is not good for the city,” he said. “It doesn’t improve the city’s image.”
The Liberty City gambling house investigation began more than a year ago when Miami police, under then-Chief Miguel Exposito, communicated with the FBI. Surveillance in Liberty City led to the spotting of a Miami officer who allegedly was seen offering protection for illicit activities.
The Miami Police Department, with roughly 1,100 sworn officers, has seen numerous officers suspended and fired in recent years because of their involvement in criminal activity, from ripping off drugs and money from dealers to fencing contraband such as stolen Bluetooth headsets.
The department is also under civil investigation by the U.S. Justice Department for police shootings that killed seven black men in the inner city in 2010 and 2011. Five of the men were unarmed. Chief Orosa has submitted an action plan designed to head off court-imposed reforms in that case.
The police department’s morale has been low of late, but not necessarily because of the investigations. The police union has been battling the city over pay raises, health benefits and pension obligations for three straight years, though it did reach a recent agreement on salary hikes for 2014.
Sgt. Javier Ortiz, incoming president of the Miami Fraternal Order of Police chapter, said: “If the rumors I am hearing are true, I pray that the police department is cleansed expeditiously of those that have betrayed our commitment to our community.’’
Unrelated to the Miami police probe, the FBI is also investigating a handful of officers in other South Florida law enforcement departments in connection with identity theft and tax refund scams.
The officers are suspected of swiping personal identity information, such as Social Security numbers and dates of birth, to file fraudulent tax returns with the IRS — a crime that has penetrated all aspects of society, including hospitals.
South Florida is one of the nation’s hardest-hit regions for ID theft and tax fraud.