News: Questions and Cash Galore in Bal Harbour Investigation

The “Save our Village” leaflets are back in Bal Habour. Activists have made it a habit of flooding the streets of the Bal Harbour-Surfside area with unsigned fliers announcing important council meetings. The threat this time isn’t the whims of the famous luxurious mall that resides in the area, or a controversial ordinance, it’s an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice into the alleged misuse of federal forfeiture funds by the villages’ police department. On top of that, the DOJ wants it’s money back, to the tune of millions.

With a packed chamber of residents grumbling for answers, the Bal Harbour Village Council voted unanimously at their December meeting to send the government what money it had left in the federal forfeiture account; a sum of $1.3 million.

Those funds were originally given to a unit within the Bal Harbour Police Department, the Tri County Task Force, that specialized in money laundering busts and participated in the DOJ’s national asset forfeiture program. The DOJ is accusing the TCTF of failing to demonstrate the unit’s compliance to federal standards when using those funds. Some of the initial findings show the task force using forfeiture money to improperly pay for salaries, as well as to pay for high priced travel and food above the prescribed federal per diem rates.

Sending back the remaining forfeiture money is the first step in a process and federal investigation that has yet to reveal to the village the full extent of ramifications and liabilities.

The Village has hired the law firm of Dan Gelber, a figure well known in local politics, to negotiate with the DOJ on any such liabilities.

“It’s the village’s intention to be 100% transparent,” said Gelber at the meeting.

The city has also commissioned Marcum LLP to perform an independent audit of the funds. According to Gelber, at this point the DOJ has asked for nothing but for the remaining balance of the forfeiture account, and is waiting until the end of the audit to possibly ask for more. Gelber sees a process where the DOJ and the village go into discussions on what was adequate use of the funds and what were not.

“We are going to go through that dialog,” he said, “and we’ll report back at a later date what the results of that discussion are.”

Around late October Bal Harbour was notified by the DOJ that those accounts should stop being used as the unit was no longer part of the program. Soon after the Herald’s Daniel Chang, who has dogged this story from the start, reported that the DOJ wanted back around $4.2 million. To the dismay of audience at the December meeting, that figure was never addressed head on by the Village Council or their lawyer, blanketing all questions of that figure with the standard line that they are working with the DOJ for a precise number.

The DOJ’s Office of the Inspector General released a redacted report on Bal Harbours’ TCTF. Among the juicy tidbits were those concerning staffing. The task force’s staffing exceeded the sleepy and affluent town of Bal Harbour, it had a member stationed as far as Orange County, and two in the Glades County Sheriff’s Office. None of the ten individuals who make up the TCTF were able to state where the two employees of the GCSO, who reside in New York, actually worked says the OIG report.

Still more importantly is what the village maybe on the hook for; the OIG found that the village improperly used $709, 836.37 in forfeiture money to pay for salary.

When questioned over this, Village Attorney Richard Weiss of Weiss Serota Helfman said his firm repeatedly advised the village not to use the funds in this matter.

“We try to be a team player, but we gave the village advice not to spend for this – it’s in writing. We told them several times and the money was spent anyway,” said Weiss.

Other problematic areas brought up by the OIG report is that lack of documentation that the TCTF has kept, even when it comes to it’s own rules. The report states that the TCTF has no written standards of procedure manual, nor is there a body over looking its’ actions. The task force has laundered approximately $56 million over three years with the aide of undercover bank account. The TCTF has no money limit per undercover pickup and has picked up over $1,000,000 at a time.

Those undercover bank accounts, which the task force has several of, have never been audited. The unit also has no administrative or operational financial manual. Nor does it generate any investigative reports the OIG found. It does not track the names of the individuals arrested by cooperating federal agencies nor seek authorization prior to conducting money wires the report found.

In addition, in all that time the task force has been working in the field- they have yet to present a money laundering investigation for prosecution.

The report says: “TCTF was unable to provide one case in which its officers effected arrests or presented cases for prosecution for money laundering.”

Under that cloud, Bal Harbour Police Chief Tom Hunker, who recently applied for the Miami Beach Police Department chief, has been suspended with pay pending the outcome of the investigation.

Brian Mulheren, a fixture of council meetings, is among the villages’ residents troubled by these facts. He has written a letter to the DOJ asking for the Attorney General to step into this investigation.

About Frank Maradiaga

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