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FBI probe targets more Miami cops in protection racket for sports betting

At least nine Miami police officers are expected to face federal criminal charges or internal discipline from a broadening FBI investigation into a suspected protection scheme involving a Liberty City gambling ring and other criminal activity, The Miami Herald has learned.

Six of those officers have already resigned or been relieved of duty in recent weeks in connection with the investigation, according to sources close to the probe. The FBI, working with Miami police internal affairs investigators, is expected to make arrests before the end of the month.

The officers, who worked in the Model City substation, are suspected of providing off-the-books protection to a Liberty City barber shop that served as a front for an illegal sports-betting operation busted last March. Officers frequented the barber shop so often that one gambler told county police he thought the place was being run by the Miami Police Department, court records show.

This week, two officers were relieved of duty, according to the department. They were Nathaniel Dauphin, 41, who helped organize the unauthorized protection detail, and Malinsky Bazile, 27, who is suspected of other criminal activity. Both will continue to receive pay while the investigation continues.

Last month, The Herald reported that 31-year-old officer Lashunda Hodge was relieved of duty with pay as part of the probe.

Another likely target of the investigation, officer Harold James, resigned Nov. 27. In his resignation letter, James gave no reason for leaving, but in a notice submitted to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, police administrators said James resigned because he was under investigation for a crime involving “perjury or a false statement,” records show.

At least three other Miami officers are facing scrutiny in connection with the protection scheme: Hodge’s roommate, Kenya Crocker, 39; Dauphin’s girlfriend, Carol Vargas, 39; and Darryl Bryant, 51, according to sources familiar with the case.

The sources said another officer, Vital Frederick, 26, was recently relieved of duty, but a department spokesman said Wednesday that he remains on the job. A message left at Frederick’s home was not returned.

The FBI investigation has focused largely on Hodge and Dauphin. Investigators believe Hodge was the original ringleader of the protection scheme, and Dauphin later managed the operation, sources said. Hodge’s lawyer has denied that she set up the protection; Dauphin could not be reached for comment.

Sources say the officers received thousands of dollars in unsanctioned payments to provide off-duty protection to the Player’s Choice Barber Shop, 6301 NW Sixth Ave., from mid-2010 through last March.

On March 26, Miami-Dade police detectives raided the barber shop and two other South Miami-Dade locations following a six-month gambling investigation dubbed “Operation Pass the Buck.” Five men were arrested on gambling charges, accused of organizing bets on football and basketball games in the back rooms, court records show.

The off-duty police work at Player’s Choice, which has since closed, was not approved through proper channels, the sources say.

In response to a public records request, the police department provided five “special events” forms listing officers working off-duty at Player’s Choice from October 2010 to April 2011. Two of those forms were prepared by Dauphin, who is listed as the off-duty officer working at the shop on 36 nights, the records show.

The forms show that two other officers, Vargas and Bryant, also worked at the barber shop a total of 16 times during that period. Neither Vargas nor Bryant could be reached for comment.

The nature of the off-duty work is not described in the documents, nor are the documents signed by hand by any supervisors — the typical procedure for approving off-duty work. The city’s finance department has no records showing the barber shop paid any surcharges required of all vendors who hire Miami police for off-duty work.

According to the documents, the requests for off-duty work were made by Lavard Clements, one of the five men arrested in March in the South Miami-Dade gambling probe. Clements, of Miami Gardens, is listed as the main corporate officer for the companies that owned Player’s Choice and the Redland Barber Shop, which was also a target of the gambling investigation.

Clements has pleaded not guilty to the gambling charges. His attorney, Frank Rubio, declined to comment.

Investigators believe the police protection was originally arranged in the spring of 2010 by Hodge, through her friendship with 35-year-old Maurice Hanks, another co-defendant in the gambling case. Hodge and Hanks grew up in the same neighborhood, said Hodge’s lawyer, Michael Feiler.

Feiler strongly denied that his client played any role in arranging the protection scheme at Player’s Choice, and said Hodge was unaware of any gambling activity at the shop.

“My client is being scapegoated because of her prior relationship with Hanks,” Feiler said. Hanks’ attorney, Arthur Jones, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Feiler said it was Dauphin, not Hodge, who organized the barber-shop detail, and said Hodge merely filled in a handful of times. Dauphin “was the one who collected money from the business owners and distributed it to the officers,” Feiler said.

Feiler said Hodge believed the barber-shop job was an officially approved off-duty detail, sanctioned by the 1,100-member department. “The officers might not know if an off-duty detail is sanctioned, especially if they are just filling in for somebody and it isn’t their regular shift,” he said.

Feiler also said Hodge was “approached” by FBI agents last fall in an effort to compel her to cooperate with authorities, but instead she contacted him.

A message left with Hodge’s roommate, Crocker, was not returned.

Hodge has been a Miami police officer since 2006. The police department has refused to comment on her status, and has not made her personnel file available to reporters.

Dauphin, a police officer since 1996, was most recently assigned to the Model City neighborhood, personnel records show. He has been disciplined 17 times, including two reprimands for insubordination to superiors, personnel records show.

In 2001, he had to surrender 40 hours of overtime after he ignored a judge’s order to turn in his gun when he was off-duty. Dauphin told supervisors “he was working too many off-duty jobs and didn’t have time to turn in his weapon on a daily basis,” records show. Dauphin also has received 21 commendations since 1998. James was an eight-year department veteran who last worked in the Model City neighborhood before he resigned in November, city records show. He generally received above-average performance evaluations, and he received nine commendations over his career.

James also was reprimanded seven times, mostly for traffic accidents or failing to appear for court hearings, records show.

The protection probe has also led to the recent resignation of an internal affairs detective, Kenneth Joseph, who was accused of leaking information about the FBI probe. Information about Joseph’s resignation came out this week, when Miami police Internal Affairs Sgt. Ron Luquis testified during the unrelated federal trial of another city police sergeant charged with planting drugs on a suspect and stealing dope and money from dealers.

The suspected protection scheme at the barber shop was uncovered after Miami-Dade detectives and FDLE agents noticed Miami police cars frequently parked near the shop when it was under surveillance in the gambling scheme. Miami-Dade then alerted the FBI.

After the police raided Player’s Choice, one suspected gambler, 49-year-old Latrone Fisher, told investigators that he thought the shop was run by the police, noting the “marked blue units” of Miami patrol cars he saw outside, according to records from the gambling probe.

El Nuevo Herald reporter Melissa Sanchez contributed to this article.

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