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Miami police officer in federal probe denies knowledge of illegal gambling

A Miami police officer targeted in an FBI corruption probe denies she provided protection to a storefront gambling operation, and says she was only working approved off-duty security at the Liberty City barbershop, her attorney said Wednesday.

Investigators say that establishment, Players First Barbershop, doubled as a sports bookmaking business, where people could place illegal bets on football and basketball games. The barbershop closed last spring amid a separate gambling investigation that led to five arrests.

Now the FBI is investigating whether officers working off-duty security at the barbershop knew about the gambling business. At least six officers are under investigation, and one of them, Lashunda Hodge, has been placed on administrative leave. Arrests are expected next month.

“My client was called in twice to fill in for another officer for a routine off-duty detail,” said Hodge’s attorney, Michael Feiler. “She was approached by federal agents. She did the right thing by coming to me, and her reward was to be relieved of duty.”

He added: “She is completely innocent of any wrongdoing. I am very confident that when all the facts come to light, she will be vindicated.”

Hodge, 31, was among a handful of Miami officers who worked off-duty shifts at the now-defunct barbershop at 6301 NW Sixth Ave.

The shop, along with two others, was the target of a six-month undercover gambling probe by the Miami-Dade Police Department, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and Homestead police, court records show.

Undercover officers and informants placed bets on football and basketball games at the Liberty City barbershop on “several occasions” between October 2011 and March 2012, court records show. While watching the barbershop earlier, Miami-Dade detectives had noticed that Miami police officers were frequently there, prompting a request for the FBI to investigate the Miami cops, according to sources familiar with the probe. The Miami Police Department assisted the FBI.

On March 26, Miami-Dade police and FDLE raided Players First and two suspected gambling houses in South Miami-Dade, and arrested five suspects on gambling and bookmaking charges. Two of them — Maurice Hanks, 35, of Miami, and Alex Desir, 23, of North Miami — were accused of handling bets at the Liberty City shop, court records show.

Hanks’ attorney, Arthur Jones, declined to comment Wednesday. Desir’s attorney could not be reached.

The gambling investigation focused mainly on another establishment, the Redland Barbershop in Florida City, where the barber chairs concealed a back room outfitted with three teller-style windows for patrons to lay bets on NFL, NBA and college football and basketball games, police said. Police seized $22,000 in cash, a money-counting machine and two hidden floor safes from that shop, court records show.

One informant told police that the gambling room at the Florida City shop was watched over by a man who carried a pistol and kept an AK-47 assault rifle “within arm’s reach,” court records show.

Investigators said the leader of the gambling ring was Dwayne Lamont Bennett, 40, of Miramar. He has pleaded not guilty to charges of racketeering, bookmaking and keeping a gambling house.

The FBI got involved when it appeared the off-duty Miami police officers might be turning a blind eye to the Liberty City gambling operation or even participating in illegal activities, such as money-laundering. Businesses can pay to have uniformed off-duty police officers provide security, but not to protect illicit activities.

Hodge was asked by another officer to work two, three-hour shifts outside the barbershop between January and March, said Feiler, her attorney. She had no knowledge of alleged illegal activity taking place inside, Feiler added.

It was not clear why a small barbershop, even one where customers pay primarily in cash, would feel the need to hire off-duty cops. The police department charges $32 per hour for such services by rank-and-file officers, and more for supervisors. The money is paid to the department, which passes it on to the officer.

Hodge was approached by federal agents in mid-November and relieved of duty Dec. 3, her attorney said. She has not been charged with a crime.

A police officer since 2006, Hodge was most recently assigned to the crime-suppression unit in Liberty City. Feiler said Hodge has never had disciplinary problems, and has received two commendations.

He said he found it “amazing” that his client “was punished while the other officers [who worked the detail at the barbershop] are still walking around like nothing happened.”

At a press conference Wednesday on an unrelated matter, Miami Police Chief Manuel Orosa said that 10 Miami officers are currently relieved of duty for a variety of reasons. Asked how many were related to the federal gambling probe, Orosa said he would not comment or even acknowledge the case.

Separately, the FBI also 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, sources said.

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