Crime

Former state trooper, towing operator plead guilty in widening FBI corruption case

A state trooper who sold accident reports on the side and a tow-truck operator who paid bribes to city of Miami employees to get business are the latest defendants to plead guilty in a widening FBI investigation of corruption in the local towing industry.

Kirk Chambers, who resigned as a Florida Highway Patrol trooper in March, pleaded guilty Wednesday to an extortion conspiracy charge in Miami federal court.

Robert Muriedas, a former business partner of convicted ex-Sweetwater Mayor Manny Maroño, pleaded guilty last week to conspiring to pay bribes to two public service aides who worked in the city of Miami Police Department.

The suspended aides, Keri Dixon and Aristides Paulino, pocketed at least $20,000 and $35,000 in bribes, respectively, between 2011 and 2014, according to court records. Both recently pleaded guilty, along with four tow-truck drivers.

At least three Miami police officers who were relieved of duty in December stemming from the FBI investigation as well as cops in other local police departments face potential charges of accepting bribes in exchange for steering jobs to towing operators and auto body shops.

Chambers, 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, according to federal prosecutor Anthony Lacosta.

In his plea agreement, Chambers admitted that he schemed 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, who became a state trooper in 2004, was convicted of accepting $5,000 in bribes in the undercover operation. The FHP 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, pleaded not guilty last month.

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.

Chambers and Sepulveda were arrested in April as part of an FBI investigation into Miami-Dade tow-truck operators suspected of paying bribes to police officers, public service aides and FHP troopers “to steer illicit business in their direction,” according to a criminal affidavit written by FBI special agent Donald Morin.

During the probe, investigators have learned that “corrupt” officers, aides and troopers “can earn money by misusing their official position to assist ‘pirate’ wreckers,” Morin wrote in the affidavit.

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 to solicit business directly from stranded drivers, according to the FBI affidavit. 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 affidavit.

During this same period investigators also focused on Muriedas, who pleaded guilty to a bribery conspiracy charge last week. Muriedas had acquired a towing company called Southland from then-Sweetwater Mayor Maroño in 2009 and was involved with him as a partner in other businesses. In an unrelated case, Maroño pleaded guilty to receiving kickbacks in a government contract case in 2013 and is serving a nearly 3 1/2-year prison sentence.

In the towing case, Muriedas admitted that he paid thousands of dollars in bribes to the two Miami public service aides in return for tow-job referrals that benefited Southland and affiliated auto body shops, according to court records. He made the illegal payments through the four convicted tow-truck drivers, including Jesus Tello, who worked for Southland, among other towing companies, and played the role of middle man.

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