Crime

Feds: FHP trooper took bribes from ‘pirate’ tow-truck operators in Miami-Dade

Kirk Chambers, a Florida Highway Patrol trooper who worked the north end of Miami-Dade County, moonlighted for years as a corrupt source of information on car accidents for “pirate” tow-truck drivers, authorities say.

Chambers is accused of scheming with a local towing operator, Guillermo “Tony” Sepulveda, to sell hundreds of confidential accident reports for $6,200 to a fictitious “Russian chiropractor” in a sting operation run by the FBI.

Chambers, a state trooper from January 2004 until his resignation in March of this year, is charged with accepting $5,000 in bribes in the undercover operation. He pleaded not guilty to conspiracy and extortion offenses in Miami federal court on Thursday.

Chambers’ defense attorney, John Hager, declined to comment after his client’s arraignment. The FHP also declined to comment because Chambers, who made more than $48,000 a year as a trooper, no longer works for the agency.

Sepulveda, accused of pocketing $1,200 in the alleged scheme with Chambers, has already pleaded not gulity.

Chambers, 41, and Sepulveda, 43, were arrested in April as part of an FBI investigation into Miami-Dade tow-truck operators suspected of paying bribes to police officers, police department employees and FHP troopers “to steer illicit business in their direction,” according to a criminal complaint filed by federal prosecutor Anthony Lacosta.

FBI agents first learned about Chambers in 2013, when they launched the investigation. A confidential source who worked in the towing business revealed that five years earlier, he had paid the FHP trooper cash multiple times for car accident information and to solicit business directly from stranded drivers, according to an FBI affidavit filed with a criminal complaint. The source told agents that he had paid Chambers between $500 and $1,000 per accident, depending on the make and model of the vehicle.

Last year, agents learned from a second confidential source that Chambers was involved in a similar scheme with Sepulveda, who owned a wrecker service, American Classic Towing, according to the FBI affidavit.

At the direction of agents, the FBI source met last September with Sepulveda to discuss a “Russian chiro” who was soliciting business from accident victims, the affidavit said. During the taped meeting, the source asked Sepulveda to see whether Chambers would be interested in providing accident reports in exchange for $1,000 for each batch.

Sepulveda told the FBI source that Chambers would agree to participate and then called the FHP trooper. Chambers agreed to meet later that day, Sept. 24, 2014, with the tow-truck operator and the source, the affidavit stated.

The source and Sepulveda drove to Chambers’ private security business in Miami Gardens. The source said that he was working with a “Russian guy” and that they would pay him $1,000 for the names, addresses and phone numbers of accident victims, according to an undercover recording of the meeting.

Florida law prohibits the release of crash reports to third parties before a 60-day period. Providing access to such reports within that time frame is unlawful for the purpose of soliciting business, such as towing, auto repairs or medical care.

In October, the FBI source met Chambers to pay him for the first batch of accident reports. “Before furnishing [him] with the reports, Chambers used White-Out to block the names of the troopers on each of the accident reports,” according to the FBI affidavit.

Between October and November, the FBI source made a total of five $1,000 payments to Chambers in exchange for confidential accident reports, the affidavit said.

In January, FBI special agent Donald Morin questioned Chambers. “During the interview, Chambers admitted that he had been taking bribes in return for participating in a pirate wrecking scheme for years,” the affidavit said. He admitted that “pirate wreckers” had paid him bribes from $100 to $300 for each damaged vehicle so they could directly solicit stranded drivers for the towing business.

The FBI made its first arrests in the towing-kickback probe in March, when four tow-truck operators and two Miami police aides were charged with bribery and fraud.

No Miami police officers were arrested in the initial take-down. But arrests of city police officers in this alleged scam — and possibly other cops involved in similar misconduct — are expected later this year, according to sources familiar with the investigation.

The four Miami tow-truck operators — Jesus Tello, Reinaldo Martin Cruz, Ronald Alfaro and Michael Perez — are accused of paying tens of thousands of dollars in bribes to two public-service aides, Aristides Paulino and Keri Dixon, according to another FBI affidavit.

In April, Dixon pleaded guilty to a fraud conspiracy charge. The other defendants plan to follow suit, according to court records.

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