The Florida Department of Law Enforcement should step in to get to the bottom of the Bal Harbour Police Department’s money-laundering scandal; and the state Legislature must step up to ensure that a police task force’s egregious — and possibly criminal — use of drug dealers’ cash doesn’t happen anywhere else in the state.
As meticulously detailed in the Herald’s series License to Launder, the Bal Harbour police were supposed to be conducting sting operations that netted the members of drug cartels and other criminal groups, and the businesses that were used to abet them. Given the access that they had to drug operatives, the initiative possibly could have made a dent in the organizations’ ability to do business.
But task-force members went rogue, got greedy. They flew to other U.S. cities, picked up millions in cash from cartel middlemen and laundered the money through several local businesses, with the task force taking a “cut,” usually needed as evidence. Then things went awry. Task-force members “cleaned up” at least $71 million of the criminals’ ill-gotten gain. But they made no arrests locally, continued to string the bad guys along and spent untold thousands to fund their own lavish desires.
And they did it all, basically, because they could. The police chief at the time, Thomas Hunker, who still vigorously defends how things went down, resigned in 2013, his departure the result of a federal investigation into how the department used, and misused, assets seized from criminal enterprises. But the task-force officers have either retired or are still on the force. They’ve got questions to answer.
This is where FDLE should be invited in after an internal audit, wisely ordered by Bal Harbour’s elected officials, is complete.
We do know that the task-force members went to high-end resorts in Puerto Rico and Las Vegas; flew first class or business class more than 40 times and bought lots of goodies; receipts for more than $400,000 have simply disappeared; and record retention was pretty much non-existent, despite massive amounts of cash being withdrawn from the task force’s various bank accounts, no questions asked. Any money kept by a state agency has to be audited. The fact that the task force made no arrests locally makes it apparent that its members, likely, wanted to keep the lucrative scheme going.
FDLE is the right agency to investigate and determine if state law was violated. It is independent and without conflict. In the June 23 editorial, Follow the money, the Editorial Board also called for the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the now-disbanded task force’s actions. But even DOJ has a problem: The task force was working with the Drug Enforcement Administration, under whose nose the money-laundering shenanigans were going on. And the FBI never looked into the task force’s finances, focusing only on the asset-seizure problem. Both the DEA and FBI are under the purview of Justice.
Right now, there is no provision in state law that requires undercover operations to get court or state-attorney approval to spend money that’s kept. And this is where the Legislature must step up. The state needs strong legislation that mandates prosecutorial and judicial oversight to keep sting operations from going off the rails. Annual audits, budget approval processes and meticulous recordkeeping are a must. The abuses of the Bal Harbour police task force never should have happened — and shouldn’t be allowed to happen anywhere else.