Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Who knows? Maybe my dog ate the Bal Harbour PD receipts

During a Department of Justice inquiry into Bal Harbour’s use of forfeiture funds in 2012, task force founder Tom Hunker told the Bal Harbour village council the undercover unit did nothing wrong. Within months he would be forced out of his job as police chief.
During a Department of Justice inquiry into Bal Harbour’s use of forfeiture funds in 2012, task force founder Tom Hunker told the Bal Harbour village council the undercover unit did nothing wrong. Within months he would be forced out of his job as police chief. Miami Herald Staff

We can only guess what happened to the $1.3 million misplaced by Bal Harbour’s undercover crimebusters.

The dog ate it. The janitor got confused and sent the bundles of cash off to recycling. The money was sucked into a swirling vortex caused by interstellar time travelers. One of those wily sneaks from a Mexican drug cartel shortchanged the Bal Harbour drug task force.

Maybe one of the undercover police officers simply misplaced a decimal point, and — oops — $13.00 went down as $1,300,000.00.

After all, as former Bal Harbour Police Chief Tom Hunker (who lost his job over this mess) told the Herald, members of his now-disbanded squad “are not accountants. They’re not bookkeepers.”

Perhaps a lack of mathematical proficiency also explains the name the officers picked for their operation, the Tri-County Task Force, which entailed agencies from only two counties. How they got Tri-County out of that remains a mystery. Auditors investigating the numerical misnomer seem much more interested in sorting out another confounding mystery: $28 million in cash that was deposited into the outfit’s special bank account without explanation, with no records of where the hell all that money came from. Nor is it clear how the money was disbursed. Like the chief said, his boys weren’t big on bookkeeping.

Police procedures were discarded. Maybe a few federal and state laws were broken. But no one is making charges of outright theft or embezzlement. What the Miami Herald’s eight-month investigation found for sure was a three-year operation that went crazy. The Herald’s Michael Sallah and Joanna Zuckerman Bernstein reported that the 12-man task force, posing as an illicit money laundering service, took in $55.6 million from various criminal enterprises from 2010 to 2012. Amid all that money, those mesmerizing stacks of cash, the cops seemed to have lost their way.

We do know, from what little record keeping they managed, that these guys lived like high rollers, as if they were modeling their lifestyle after the old cocaine cowboys, another South Florida bunch known for flash and cash extravagance.

They dined at some of the finest restaurants around town, like the night the task force ran up a $1,150 bill at Bal Harbour 101, or another for $959 at Morton’s in North Miami Beach. Of course, thanks to their aversion to record keeping, we don’t know how many cops bellied up to the tables those nights.

When they flew — and they flew often — they preferred first class. Same with the hotels, like the $850-a-night St. Regis in Atlanta. Sallah discovered a $9,410 bill for a stay at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino in Las Vegas. Other nights found them across town at the Bellagio or down in Puerto Rico at the Rincon Beach Resort. Task force meetings were held in Bal Harbour’s fabulous seaside hotels.

The argument, that a showy Miami Vice lifestyle was necessary to their underworld criminal clientele, fell apart when Sallah discovered that some of those exotic trips took them to meetings with federal agents. (Though I’m sure the feds were impressed.) Besides, most of their surreptitious deals seemed to have been done by cellphone rather than during face-to-face meetings. But who knows? The records aren’t all that illuminating. We do know that while the squad kept the DEA informed about the criminals lured into the drug laundering scheme, Bal Harbour’s band of fearless crime fighters never arrested anyone.

The Bal Harbour PD partnered up in this lucrative enterprise with their cultural opposites, the sheriff’s department in rural Glades County, population 13,000. The partnership enabled the Bal Harbour boys to circumvent nosy bureaucrats down in Miami-Dade who might question the Tri-County Task Force’s cops-gone-wild procedures. Meanwhile, the money-strapped Glades County agency used its cut of the profits from the money-laundering scheme to buy new cruisers and other police equipment.

The Bal Harbour PD bought some nice shiny toys of its own, including a new police boat, some vehicles, a lot of computer equipment (some of which seems to have disappeared) and three FN P90 assault weapons. The weapons were purchased for a wealthy town virtually free of violent crime, but if the natives ever get out of hand, they’ll be facing officers armed with snubby-looking submachine guns capable of spitting out 900 rounds a minute. Which means three cops can take out all 2,500 Bal Harbour residents in 90 seconds with bullets left over for the nannies and doormen.

Glades County, however, soured on its relationship with the famously wealthy seaside town after federal auditors ordered the sheriff’s office to relinquish a big chunk of its drug laundering riches.

The police officers back in Bal Harbour might argue that their permissive handlers at the DEA allowed the operation to veer off the tracks. After all, about the same time that Bal Harbour was going rogue, the Sunrise Police Department got carried away in a similar undercover operation. Undercover cops lured criminals to Sunrise — not known as a hotbed of illicit drug activities — from all over the country for supposed drug buys. Once the bad boys found their way to the suburban city, often meeting up with undercover cops in Sunrise restaurants, the officers popped them and then grabbed their money and property under federal forfeiture laws.

In the three-year operation that ended in 2013, the 12-man Sunrise drug squad used the confiscated money and cars and stuff to underwrite about $1.2 million in highly questionable overtime pay.

The Sunrise operation apparently depended on a very persuasive confidential informant, unnamed in police records but described as a “beautiful, buxom brunette” with a special talent for coaxing criminals down to Florida.

The beautiful, buxom brunette earned $800,000 for her work with Sunrise police.

We know that because the Sunrise undercover drug task force, unlike their cowboy counterparts down in Bal Harbour, remembered to keep their receipts.