Miami-Dade County

License To Launder: As Bal Harbour police chief, Tom Hunker was a larger than life figure who brought in millions

FILE--Tom Hunker, Bal Harbour chief of police, patrolled the Bal Harbour area on the department’s 25-foot police boat.
FILE--Tom Hunker, Bal Harbour chief of police, patrolled the Bal Harbour area on the department’s 25-foot police boat. For the Miami Herald

Just days after his undercover police flouted state law by using drug cash to pay their informants, Bal Harbour Chief Tom Hunker hosted dozens of police chiefs at the elegant Sea View Hotel, complete with dinner, an open bar and a $500-a-night cigar roller.

As the staff served lamb chop appetizers under a white canopy, Hunker’s men were about to secretly move drug money into a bank in Panama in direct violation of U.S. policies that ban illicit dollars from being sent offshore.

In a region where money and power are interwoven, Tom Hunker knew few equals.

The charismatic chief showered public officials with dinners and gifts — including gold-plated police badges and expensive cigars — as the task force he created broke nearly every provision of undercover sting operations while laundering millions for drug organizations, a Miami Herald investigation found.

Four years after hosting the Miami-Dade Chiefs Association, Hunker is at the center of what could become Florida’s largest undercover corruption case in decades as auditors turn up troubling information about the millions that flowed through police bank accounts.

A Miami Herald investigation found hundreds of thousands were handed over to informants in cash and even more was withdrawn from bank accounts with no records to show where the money went, prompting Bal Harbour leaders to request an investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

In a letter sent to the FDLE a month ago, Mayor Martin Packer wrote that gaps found in an audit left village officials “very concerned and troubled” about what could “have some level of criminality” and asked that investigators track the money.

All the dirt coming out, it’s not going to be swept under the rug. The whole thing just blew up.

Bal Harbour Mayor Martin Packer

“All the dirt coming out, it’s not going to be swept under the rug,” he told the Herald. “The whole thing just blew up.”

Hunker, who was forced to resign during a controversy over spending of forfeiture dollars in 2013, declined to be interviewed for this article. But in prior interviews, he remained defiant, saying he did not break any laws. “They are not going to find anything wrong,” he said of the ongoing audit.

The 64-year-old former chief said his officers kept records for all the money that was spent. “They are all there,” he said.

Details of Hunker’s fall as one of Florida’s most influential chiefs, drawn from interviews, public records and published reports, can be found in the task force that he created and the ability he showed to bring money to police agencies — millions over the years — while trampling on all of the rules.

He could be brash and defiant as he created the largest money-laundering sting operation in Florida in decades from a small town on the Gold Coast, while feuding with other law enforcement agents who questioned his tactics.

As his Tri-County Task Force was hauling in millions from criminal groups, Hunker passed out money clips shaped into Bal Harbour police badges. During dinners he hosted at the Sea View, he ordered a driver to park a 1946 antique police car at the entrance, with flashing lights and the stereo pumping rock music.

The same year he was elected president of the Miami-Dade Chiefs Association in 2007, he displayed a six-foot-tall cigar store Indian in his office with the face carved into a likeness of himself.

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A photo of Tom Hunker and the wooden Indian, carved in his likeness, that adorned his office at the Bal Habour police station.

“He was larger than life,” said Bal Harbour Assistant Mayor Patricia Cohen. “No one challenged him.”

By the end of 2012, his task force had taken in more money than any laundering investigation in Florida while competing with federal undercover teams across the country. “If you look at our stats,” he told the Herald at the time, “we’re killing ’em.”

His is a classic Miami story of an ambitious cop who took advantage of state laws that allowed him to run a laundering sting from a police trailer with no oversight by Bal Harbour government leaders or prosecutors.

As his officers were breaking records — taking in $71.5 million to launder for criminal groups, they tapped into the profits of the operation to fly dozens of times on first-class and business flights and stayed at $350-a-night resorts, charging dinners that reached $1,000, and leaving no receipts, the Herald found.

From the time he arrived in Miami Beach in 1973, the Pennsylvania native was one of the most aggressive cops on the force in a region about to explode from a cocaine epidemic that changed the fabric of life in South Florida, say those who remember him.

As a young patrolman, he found his niche in the seedy drug world of the Beach, cultivating informants to make arrests and, ultimately, confiscate money.

After his promotion to sergeant, Hunker showed an ability to seize cash under forfeiture laws and at times take cases to the edge in what became a persistent controversy throughout his career. One such case underscored the perils of the work and consequences of using a risky informant.

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Scott Rakow, killed in the line of duty

After setting up a reverse sting in June 1988, an undercover officer working under Hunker went to sell cocaine but was ripped off by buyers who fled with four kilos. During the chase, 28-year-old officer Scott Rakow was killed by one of the men with a single bullet to the head.

It was later discovered that an informant who helped set up the sting, Mario Peña, had been blackballed from nearly every major agency in Miami-Dade because his deals led to one suspect being killed and a federal agent nearly being shot.

Several officers blamed Hunker for breakdowns in planning and for repositioning a SWAT team before the drug deal. Later, one cop marched into the narcotics office and fired three bullets into Hunker’s empty desk and another into the wall after a dispute with him.

A department review determined the sting was properly planned, but officers complained the unit was driven by money at the expense of police safety.

“He [Hunker] was told the confidential informant was blackballed by federal and local agencies,” said Joe Matthews, a retired sergeant and nationally known consultant who led the investigation into Rakow’s death. “It was not properly planned.”

Hunker continued to carry out reverse stings — police posing as drug dealers and seizing cash — while he cultivated informants who could could infiltrate drug organizations and sell information to police. He boasted in an interview three years ago that he had used some of the same people for decades.

His rise into the world of laundering occurred in 1994 after he was named operations commander for a new task force, South Florida IMPACT, a much bigger vehicle for taking on criminal groups that had turned Miami into the nation’s hub for drug cash.

Tall and imposing, with a square jaw and rugged features, Hunker became the face of the operation while emerging as one of the best known officers in Miami-Dade for generating revenue.

The first year, IMPACT seized $7.2 million, and in four years, the number quadrupled in sting investigations that were garnering national attention.

Despite the headlines, IMPACT was not making any money-laundering arrests. For all the cash it was laundering — more than $120 million — not one prosecution took place in Florida for the very crime the task force was created to investigate.

The Justice Department and FDLE began a sweeping inquiry in 1999 and found the unit had quietly turned into a profit generator that funded itself solely from the money it seized. Records were incomplete for investigations and, in some cases, didn’t exist.

In addition, investigators found a retired U.S. Customs agent working for the task force took hundreds of thousands in kickbacks from his own informants who were being paid by the police for giving tips. The practice was not illegal at the time, but it was harshly criticized. Though the unit had promised audits, none took place, reports stated.

The probe led to a shakeup and a series of reforms imposed on local task forces, “South Florida IMPACT lost sight of its true enforcement purpose, which is to investigate and prosecute those who are illegally laundering money in South Florida,” agents wrote in a scathing report. The lack of audits, they added, “is inexcusable.”

In 1999, Hunker moved on to North Miami Beach and a return to reverse stings, using a warehouse where cops posed as drug dealers to seize cash. But it wasn’t long before he would return to the world of money laundering.

In 2002, he landed a job as deputy chief in the small but exclusive village of Bal Harbour. Long known as a quiet place to set up speed traps, Bal Harbour had never created anything like a task force to take on drug cartels. As it was, the village had just three violent crimes a year on average.

Hunker assured community leaders he could bring revenue to Bal Harbour. At no point did anyone ask about the problems turned up at IMPACT, said Brian Mulheren, a director of the Bal Harbour Citizens’ Coalition who met with Hunker for lunch. “It was all about the money,” Mulheren said.

At first, Hunker forged ties with local agencies, but he broke on his own with a task force totally under his control in 2009. There are no requirements under Florida law for money-laundering stings to be supervised by prosecutors.

With just the Glades County Sheriff’s Office as a partner, Bal Harbour would supervise the stings and set up undercover accounts at SunTrust under control of the cops. The computer password on the police WIFI system: CASH.

In the first six months of 2010, the officers picked up $12 million in drug money — in suitcases, paper bags and duffel bags — keeping their share for arranging the deals, then sending the money into banks to launder for the criminal groups, records show.

Taking thousands a week for brokering the deals, the sting became a business. To keep the deals rolling in from across the country, Hunker directed his men to tap into the drug money to cover travel costs and cash payments to informants — at least $800,000 — without getting court approval.

The task force also struck agreements with criminal money brokers to move dollars offshore — $4.5 million to banks in Panama alone — in direct violation of U.S. policies that ban the delivery of drug money into countries on the State Department’s trouble list for money laundering.

As the task force was bringing in millions, Hunker emerged as the most influential person in town, a charming and at times gregarious chief who managed to get nearly all of his requests approved by the village council.

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With the millions from his Tri-County Task Force, former Bal Harbour police chief Tom Hunker purchased knickknacks big and small to hand out, including these coin keepsakes. CARL JUSTE Miami Herald staff

He created his own promotions for the department, spending $10,844 to buy gold and silver police badges to give out to civic leaders, including Stanley Whitman, the founder of the Bal Harbour Shops, and Ivan Morales, the SunTrust banker who helped police launder the money, records show.

For local charities, Hunker turned to forfeiture funds — money from police seizures in drug investigations — and convinced the council to dole out thousands for anti-drug beach bashes, honor guard trips to Washington and Miami-Dade Chiefs’ dinners, among others. The total amount: $300,000 in just three years.

He relished his role as chief, hosting police dinners with drinks and cigars, keeping a humidor in his office and dozens of donated liquor cases — including Crown Royal, Johnnie Walker Black and Ketel One vodka — stacked in a prisoner holding cell and storage room in police headquarters, records and interviews show.

He frequently held court at the upscale Bal Harbour Shops Italian bistro Carpaccio, his favorite restaurant, where he hosted meetings at least 58 times from 2009 through 2012 — so often the kitchen staff called a bruschetta appetizer “The Chief’s Special.”

He would work the room, going around to the different tables. He would talk to everybody. That was his style. He was a politician.

Brian Mulheren, a director of the Bal Harbour Citizens’ Coalition

“He would work the room, going around to the different tables,” said Mulheren, a former New York detective. “He would talk to everybody. That was his style. He was a politician.”

There are also those who benefited from his influence. When the executive chef at Carpaccio was arrested for his third DUI in North Miami Beach in 2011, he was allowed to serve his community service sentence close to home: the Bal Harbour Police Department, records and interviews show.

Hunker began moving in social circles where he had never ventured before. There were lunches with Benny Klepach, the Indian Creek mayor who founded the world’s largest duty-free retailer, and philanthropist Joe Dippell, a member of the New York Stock Exchange, who was given a police badge.

He organized fund-raisers for Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez when he ran for re-election, and Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle during her campaign in 2011.

He hosted cocktail parties for Jon Solomon and John Gillies, top FBI agents in Miami, on the terrace of what’s now the Ritz Carlton, both in 2009.

“He was throwing parties. He was going to dinner with all these big shots,” said Patricia Cohen, deputy mayor. “You could see how powerful he was getting. Any time I ever asked him what he was doing running a task force, he would say: ‘Do you know how much money I’m bringing to Bal Harbour?’ 

The power was also affording him a protective layer that kept much of the scrutiny of law enforcement away from a task force that was not making arrests or dismantling any money-laundering groups.

Neil Alter, a director of the Bal Harbour Citizens’ Coalition, said complaints were coming from residents who were upset that the task force made up nearly a third of the 28-person police force. “There were a lot of questions about what they were doing,” he said. “They weren’t seeing a lot of police officers on the street.”

Around 2011, Hunker welcomed the most powerful law enforcement agent in the country, Eric Holder, during his vacation to Bal Harbour. The two posed for photos at the One Bal Harbour, where the attorney general stayed with his family, and then boarded the police department’s 35-foot SeaHunter boat bought with forfeiture funds for a ride along the coast, according to records and interviews.

In February 2012, Hunker hosted another event at the Sea View, an elaborate dinner for more than a dozen police chiefs, using thousands of dollars in forfeiture funds to help cover the cost of the festivities.

That same day, the task force had traveled to Chicago for its biggest score of the year at the time: nearly $600,000 in cash to launder and then return to the same criminal groups.

The first hint of trouble came when the Justice Department announced a routine inquiry into a different pool of funds — money seized in drug cases and approved by the court — prompting the police to refuse to turn over critical records.

When the government’s report was released in October 2012, several council members said they were stunned: Investigators found striking parallels to the IMPACT breakdowns more than a decade earlier: no arrests, no audits, lack of reports, and massive amounts of drug money sent to banks without alerting federal agents. The DOJ concluded that Bal Harbour misspent hundreds of thousands in forfeiture funds on police salaries.

Ultimately, Hunker was forced to resign and the village was ordered to give up millions in forfeiture awards that were to be disbursed. To this day, Mayor Packer says the council could not have known the extent of the deficiencies. “The council was completely — completely — blindsided,” he said.

But the problems were far from over. A Miami Herald investigation and an audit by Bal Harbour that began two months later show the task force was spending far more money from a pool of funds that was never disclosed to the public.

Not only did the task force take in millions more during the undercover sting than what was reported to federal agents, but a large amount remains unaccounted for — including lavish spending by some officers — that could reach $2 million, according to confidential sources familiar with the audit. Commanders withdrew large amounts of cash from the bank, including $40,000 just days before the task force disbanded.

Chief Mark Overton, who was hired after the task force ended, met last week with the FDLE, which officially launched an inquiry into the task force in what may lead to a criminal investigation.

Village Manager Jorge Gonzalez, hired in 2013, said the questions about the money and Hunker’s leadership “are troubling. We just don’t know how this is going to end. I wish we did, but we don’t. The money was off the charts.”

He said the breakdown in government took place at the administrative level, beginning with his predecessor, Al Treppeda, who should have known about the undercover accounts and the spending. “It was obvious that he [Hunker] didn’t want people to know,” said Gonzalez. Treppeda did not respond to interview requests.

Gonzalez said Hunker cut a large figure in town and was not just the most powerful person in government, “but even in the larger law enforcement community.”

Years ago when Gonzalez was city manager in Miami Beach, Hunker emerged as a candidate for the police chief’s job in the same city where he started his career nearly four decades earlier.

He said he and Hunker met for an interview in 2012, and that Gonzalez asked him the same question he had been asking all the candidates. “I said, ‘What do you feel you can really do for the department?’ That to me was important.”

Hunker’s answer, he said, raised concerns: “He told me that he could bring me money.”

Miami Herald staff writer Daniel Chang contributed to this report.

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