Miami-Dade County

Former police chief denies taking loan from officer as Biscayne Park leaders allege

The former police chief of tiny Biscayne Park, one of three commanding officers mysteriously ousted from their posts at the end of March, borrowed thousands of dollars from an underling and promised to repay the loan through a combination of taxpayer-funded overtime and off-duty work, according to documents obtained by the Miami Herald.

The alleged contract between Police Chief Ray Atesiano and police officer Thomas Harrison is amateurish at best: It appears to be penned in child-like handwriting with a royal blue magic marker on a single sheet of white paper.

The top of the page is labled “Contract.” Under it, it says: “I Tommy will loan Ray $2,000 to be paid back at the rate of $150 a pay period. & 2 off duties a week & 8 hours OT a pay period.”

Under that are sections that say “giver,” “taker,” and “witness.” The giver, according to Biscayne Park Village Manager Heidi Shafran, is Harrison. The taker is Atesiano. The witness is Raul Fernandez, a village reserve officer.

A ribbon is drawn on the bottom right hand corner of the page, with misspelled lettering inside proclaiming it the “Offical Seal.”

“A manager should never borrow money from a subordinate. And I also have concerns about how the money was to be repaid. It’s a betrayal of the village,” Shafran said. “He was using village funds and manpower to repay a personal loan.”

Atesiano called the IOU a “joke” that some cops conjured up several years ago to make fun of Harrison. No money was ever borrowed, he said. He admits to signing his signature over the word “taker,” but said he was stunned the piece of paper still exists.

“It was a joke. We were making fun of Tommy. You think I’d borrow money and make up a contract like that? These allegations are totally nonsense,” Atesiano said, adding he wasn’t even responsible for doling out off-duty jobs.

The alleged deal between Atesiano and Harrison has caught the attention of the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics & Public Trust.

“We will take a look at it,” said executive director Joe Centorino.

The command staff remains in limbo. Atesiano has resigned, a captain remains suspended with pay, and a corporal has returned to work, though an investigation involving him remains active.

Shafran suspended Atesiano, Capt. Larry Churchman and Cpl. Nicholas Wollschlager without explanation at the end of March. Atesiano resigned a week later.

Wollschlager was reinstated this week after some push back by police union representatives. Shafran said the village isn’t finished investigating him. Churchman remains suspended with pay.

Atesiano called the entire episode “orchestrated,” and pointed to a spotless record at Biscayne Park until Shafran’s recent appointment to village manager.

Churchman is an officer featured in a 2011 story by the Sarasota Herald Tribune about embattled cops who remain in uniform. The story detailed how Churchman falsified education records as a Sweetwater cop to earn an extra $40 a week. He was demoted and suspended. He joined Biscayne Park in 2008.

Shafran declined to discuss Churchman’s case. Churchman could not be reached for comment.

Shafran said the village is “evaluating the property room,” where anything of value taken by police during the commission of a crime — drugs, jewelry, firearms — is stored. The village’s findings have been passed on to state prosecutors.

“It’s ongoing,” Miami-Dade State Attorney Spokesman Ed Griffiths said of his agency’s investigation of Biscayne Park.

The suspensions and resignation and near silence by administrators in Biscayne Park has left the village’s 3,000 residents mystified.

Just west of Biscayne Boulevard and sandwiched between El Portal and North Miami, Biscayne Park has only 11 full-time cops and no commercial businesses.

The hidden half-square-mile village is known for its hard stance on traffic offenders. Signs throughout the village warn passersby: “Don’t even think about speeding.” A year-end police report in 2012 touted how village officers had issued 5,187 traffic citations and made 733 arrests.

That translates to more than 14 traffic tickets and more than two arrests a day in the tiny community that is best known for its iconic log cabin Village Hall, and as the home to Watergate mastermind E. Howard Hunt.

Shafran has replaced Atesiano with former Coral Springs Chief Duncan Foster. He’ll hold down the fort for three months until a new permanent chief is hired.

Mayor David Coviello lauded Shafran for the quick and “deliberate” removal of Atesiano, and said he’s pleased with the “professionalism” and improved morale Foster has brought to the department.

“The village is now moving forward,” Coviello said.

Still, even the transition from Atesiano to Foster had some hiccups.

Before Foster was hired, Shafran named Harrison, Atesiano’s alleged lender, as interim chief. Harrison was replaced by Foster a day after the Miami Herald requested his past police records. Shafran called that a coincidence.

An Internal Affairs report completed by Miami-Dade Schools Police in August 2009 tells how investigators tailed Harrison as he used his patrol vehicle while off duty and as he escorted two women and a man from Miami Beach to Bayside Marketplace. The report notes he drank a Corona beer before placing a cooler in the vehicle’s trunk.

Stopped by police in the middle of the tail, Harrison, decked out in beachwear, told them he was using his patrol car because he didn’t have a personal vehicle. The investigation was to be passed along to a panel for “review and final disposition.” But Florida Department of Law Enforcement records show Harrison quit nine days before the report was finalized.

Reached this week, Harrison admitted he made a mistake.

“I learned from it and I have made it a point not to repeat it,” he said. “I have moved forward with my career and am proud to serve in Biscayne Park.”