Bal Harbour Police Chief Thomas Hunker, the village’s top cop for nearly 10 years, was fired Friday after a months-long suspension.
The dismissal stemmed from a lengthy U.S. Justice Department investigation and followed a series of Miami Herald reports about alleged misspending of millions of dollars received through a federal forfeiture program. The Justice Department also alleged that alleged Hunker abused his position for personal benefit.
In a memo to Hunker dated Friday, Jay Smith, acting village manager, said the chief’s termination was not based on the Justice Department’s allegations, “but instead, is the result of the Village’s desire to move its Police Department in another direction.’’
Hunker will receive a payout of about $115,350, plus six months of health insurance. He is in the last year of a contract that pays him a base salary of $155,600 a year, and provides him with an SUV, health insurance and a pension.
Hunker will collect a monthly pension benefit of $3,339.82, with an automatic escalator of 2 1/2 percent each year. As of December 2012, Hunker had received about $43,442 in retirement benefits deposited into a deferred savings account that he can only access after retirement.
Hunker already receives a pension from Miami Beach, where he was a police officer for 28 years.
Though he could not be reached for comment Friday, Hunker rebutted the Justice Department’s allegations of misconduct in a three-page letter written by his criminal defense attorney, Richard Sharpstein.
In the letter, Sharpstein denied specific accusations that the chief used his influence to get “a deal” on his wife’s Jeep, stating that Hunker paid $35,000 for the vehicle in 2009 and that he provided village officials with a copy of the purchase agreement. Sharpstein also wrote that Hunker never accepted gifts from individuals seeking to benefit from the chief’s influence, and that he never allowed an associate who was intoxicated to drive a marked police car on the beach.
Contradicting the Justice Department’s claim that Hunker’s officers never made a single arrest as part of their narcotics investigations, Sharpstein said Bal Harbour provided federal officials with statistics showing village police had made 200 arrests in 13 cities throughout the United States from 2009 through 2012.
Indeed, Smith’s termination memo acknowledged Hunker’s “many accomplishments’’ since becoming chief in April 2003, including improved training for officers, better equipment and facilities for the police department, charitable endeavors that benefited the community, and the “fine work” of the narcotics unit that brought millions in federal forfeiture funds to the village — and ultimately led to the chief’s downfall.
Hunker created the unit in 2003, and its detectives investigated money laundering and drug trafficking far outside the borders of Bal Harbour, a relatively crime-free, oceanside town of about 2,500 people.
Working together with the Glades County Sheriff’s Office deputies under a joint investigative group called the Tri-County Task Force, the narcotics unit brought Bal Harbour at least $7.3 million in three years, according to the Justice Department.
But federal investigators say village police misspent that money on unjustified overtime and lavish travel, and improper payments to confidential informants. The money also went to cover salaries and benefits for two undercover investigators working under contract in California and Florida’s west coast, and to purchase expensive toys: $100,000 for a police power boat; $225,000 for a sleek surveillance truck.
As a result of the questionable spending , Bal Harbour was suspended from the forfeiture program, and the feds demanded the village return more than $4 million.
The village has returned about $1.3 million, and attorneys are now negotiating a settlement for the remainder, said Dan Gelber, a former federal prosecutor who is representing Bal Harbour in talks with the Justice Department.
The village also has disbanded the narcotics unit, and on Thursday construction crews began to remove the trailer where the unit’s detectives planned investigations and counted cash seized from suspected drug dealers and money launderers.
Detectives with the narcotics unit earned tens of thousands in overtime — often from work conducted inside the trailer — during the past few years, sometimes doubling their pay.
Smith said it was only coincidence that Hunker’s firing and the narcotics trailer’s removal took place at about the same time.
Smith estimated the cost of removing the trailer is about $20,000.
Though Hunker’s firing marks the end of an era for Bal Harbour police, the department’s troubles are not over.
On Thursday, a Bal Harbour police officer, Ramon Fernandez, filed a whistleblower complaint against the village, alleging that Hunker coerced him and other officers into providing DNA samples by cheek swab as part of the chief’s quest to identify the author of an anonymous letter that alleged cheating had occurred on a 2011 sergeant’s promotional exam.
Fernandez alleges that his DNA was improperly taken from him, and that Hunker — who collected cheek swabs from every officer on the 30-member force —sent in only a few of the swabs for analysis, including Fernandez’s.
In the complaint, Fernandez also alleged that he had been unfairly targeted for disciplinary action by his superiors; that a fellow BHPD officer intimidated his wife at her workplace; and that other BHPD officers made false accusations against him.