Miami-Dade County

Former Miami-Dade cop, others imprisoned in ‘pirate’ towing scam

Miami Herald file photo
Miami Herald file photo

A former Miami-Dade County police officer, who collaborated with a public service aide and two tow-truck operators, was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison on Thursday for his role in a bribery scheme involving payments of thousands of dollars to gain the inside track in profiting off stranded motorists.

Yuri Millan, who was on the county force for a decade, and the two towing operators, Oriel Ugardes and Jose Guim, were charged with conspiring to commit bribery in November, while the former service aide, Elina Rodriguez, surrendered to authorities in October. Like Millan, the three co-defendants have pleaded guilty in Miami federal court.

On Thursday, Ugardes was sentenced to three years and Guim to 2 1/2 years in prison by U.S. District Judge Darrin Gayles. Previously, Rodriguez was sentenced to time served and three years of probation.

The four defendants are among about 20 suspects who have been charged and convicted over the past two years in an FBI investigation into corrupt relationships between local police departments and “pirate” towing businesses, according to federal prosecutor Anthony Lacosta.

Here’s how authorities say the racket worked:

Ugardes, owner of O&U Towing, and Guim, one of his drivers, were not on the Miami-Dade police’s rotation list for tow-truck companies.

To jump ahead of those on the list, they paid Millan and Rodriguez from $100 to $300 each for dozens of tow-job referrals mainly between 2013 and 2014, according to an FBI affidavit.

The towing operators received the kickbacks to pay the officer and aide from unnamed auto body shops, which made money off repairs.

But under the county’s system, a police officer and service aide can only provide towing assistance to a driver involved in an accident through a dispatcher, who then is required to call tow-truck companies on the official rotation list.

In May 2014, FBI agents interviewed Rodriguez about receiving cash payments from Ugardes for steering unlawful towing work to his company. Rodriguez, who worked as a service aide for Miami-Dade police for 17 years, admitted that she received a total of $35,000 in bribes from Ugardes since 2009.

Rodriguez eventually cooperated with the FBI’s investigation.

One month after approaching Rodriguez, agents questioned Millan. After he initially denied taking kickbacks, the police officer admitted receiving bribes.