Miami-Dade County

As feds demanded answers, task force doubled down on sting

With federal agents bearing down on a troubled sting operation run by Bal Harbour police, the officers for the unit began striking more deals with criminal groups to bring in massive amounts of drug cash.

In one month alone, they traveled 22 times to cities outside Florida to collect suitcases filled with cash, even as federal agents complained the police were ignoring their questions about the undercover operation.

By the time federal investigators issued a subpoena in 2012, the police task force was striking as many as three deals in a single day to launder money for the drug cartels and other criminal groups.

New records obtained last week by the Miami Herald show the Tri-County Task Force carried out a rush of deals while fending off federal agents in what appears to be one of the largest ever state undercover money laundering operations in Florida.

Instead of the officers laundering $55.6 million in the course of their operation, the new records show the total reached $71.5 million -- with much of the money coming in the final, frenetic months of the task force’s existence.

“The sky was the limit,” said Dennis Fitzgerald, an attorney and former DEA agent who examined the data at the Herald’s request. “When you’ve got no supervision, you can do whatever you want to do.”

The emergence of the previously undisclosed records raises more questions about an undercover operation that turned into a cash generator, raking in millions in commissions for a task force that was not making its own arrests and operating without oversight by prosecutors.

In three years, the unit took in $2.4 million for themselves for brokering the deals -- more than previously known. Some of the money went to fund an operation that included lavish spending at resort hotels, expensive restaurants and cash rewards to informants totaling hundreds of thousands.

The latest revelations came to light last week when police administrators turned over a host of documents at the Herald’s request, showing 100 deals struck by the unit that were not previously disclosed.

Mark Overton, Bal Harbour police chief who was hired after the task force ended, said his officers believed the reports tucked in three large file folders were duplicates of what was already made available to reporters in September. But the documents clearly contain new information, including $16 million in deals.

Overton said he will make the records available to auditors who were hired last year by Bal Harbour village leaders to track the millions that once flowed through the task force accounts at SunTrust. The total amount recovered: $245,000.

Former Bal Harbour Police Chief Tom Hunker, who created the task force with the Glades County Sheriff’s Office in 2009, declined to comment, but in prior interviews said all money laundered by the task force was documented and can be accounted for. “There are records,” he said. “All the records are there.”

In the vast majority of the 330 laundering deals, no police reports or intelligence files were created to describe the goals of the operation and why the officers were laundering money for criminal groups in more than a dozen cities.

The spate of deals unfolded during a tense period between the task force and the Justice Department when federal agents went to the small, exclusive community in 2012 to examine the police spending of forfeiture funds -- money taken from seizing cash and other property during drug investigations.

At first, the focus was on the seized money, but by May 2012, agents turned their attention to the laundering operation in meetings that put the undercover sting under increased scrutiny.

DOJ special agent Matthew McCloskey pressed for details, including the authority of a small agency to launder drug money for crime groups in a dozen cities outside Florida, but some of his questions were not answered, he said in emails to Hunker.

While McCloskey waited, task force members embarked on what was their busiest month, picking up a total of $1.5 million in New York -- in one case, the money stuffed in a Target shopping bag -- during 11 trips into the city. For their share, the officers took nearly $270,000 in what was their largest amount for any month.

In July, the task force reached deals with drug groups that topped $3 million, including three trips to Los Angeles to pick up cash. They even found new routes to launder the cash, including a bank in Uruguay, where they wired hundreds of thousands, records show.

On July 30, the same day the cops swept into two different cities to pick up nearly $600,000 in drug cash, McCloskey said he was still waiting for answers, including the number of bank wires sent by the task force to launder the money through exporters and other businesses since launching the sting. He complained that an email to Sgt. Paul Deitado, a team leader, bounced back without providing the answer.

“I would appreciate a reply via email,” he wrote to Hunker.

The following month, McCloskey ended his efforts, saying he could wait no longer. “The Office of Inspector General has decided to leave the question as an unanswered matter,” he wrote to Hunker on Aug. 10.

With pressure mounting against the task force, the officers struck one last deal: $297,510 in New York on October 25. A week later, village leaders, faced with massive fines by the government and a Miami Herald article revealing the unit’s existence, dismantled the operation.

One former task force member who spoke to the Herald on the condition of anonymity said the officers were not motivated to get more money because the operation was ending, but by a host of informants who were getting tips on pending deals. “They are getting calls, and you go with it,” he said.

Overton, the new chief, declined to comment on the money brought in during the final days, saying he is awaiting the results of the audit. “We still have a lot of questions. It’s mind-numbing,” he said. “Until the audit is completed, we’re not going to be able to tell the entire picture.”

Despite the crackdown by the DOJ three years ago, agents never investigated the task force’s finances, including the spending of drug cash. A Miami Herald investigation found the task force spent hundreds of thousands on travel and expensive purchases without receipts or other records to show why the money was spent. Village officials say they have still not been able to find records to support more than $1 million in cash withdrawals by officers from bank accounts.

Hunker said in a prior interview that records exist for all the money taken out of the bank, including payments to informants. “They’re just not looking in the right place,” he said.

The emergence of the new records last week could help auditors track dozens of money laundering deals that previously did not show up in any documents. So far, auditors suspect there were as many as $83 million in deals carried out by the task force. Even with the latest records, there are still $12 million in laundering transactions for which reports have yet to be found.

Overton said he will continue to search for records that could explain the differences. “Whatever went into the accounts, and went out, we just don’t know,” he said. “There was a lot of money on the table.”

Herald reporter and graphic designer Chris Alcantara contributed to this report.

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