In Florida, police departments can engage in a program called Equitable Sharing, in which, they are allowed to claim seized property (cash, cars, boats, etc.) in federal court and share it with the Department of Justice. In 2010, like many entities at the time, the Bal Harbour Police department decided to participate in this program. Bal Harbour teamed with the Glades County PD to form the Tri-County Task Force, which posed as money launderers to collect cash from drug organizations and get information for busts on those companies. The task force reported more than $55 million taken from these outfits, and depositing the money into the bank accounts of Miami export companies, who would in turn send products to Latin American stores, who would pay the cartel back in pesos. However, a probe by the feds found that they really took in $83 million, leaving about $28 million unaccounted for. The Miami Herald did an investigation of its own and found:
▪ Police routinely withdrew cash — thousands at a time — totaling $1.3 million from undercover bank accounts, but to this day there are no records to show where the money was spent. “In all my years of law enforcement, I’ve never seen anything like it,” Chief Overton said.
▪ Bal Harbour officials say they cannot find receipts for hundreds of thousands in expenses, including five-star hotel bookings, dinners that ran up to $1,000 and scores of purchases like laptops, iPads, electronic money counters, flower deliveries and even iTunes downloads.
▪ While posing as launderers, police delivered nearly $20 million to storefront businesses in Miami-Dade to launder the money for drug groups — gathering critical evidence against the business owners — yet took no action against them. Years later, the businesses are still open, some still suspected by federal agents of laundering for the cartels.
A condition of the task force’s agreement to carry out the stings, they could keep 3% of the money laundered as their commission. However, they were supposed to work with the DEA. The DEA ordered them to get permission from state prosecutors to take trips out of state to carry out deals. The task force passed along information to the DEA, but did not get permission from prosecutors much of the time, and took first-class trips out of state to broker deals for hundreds of thousands of dollars and stay in five star hotels. At one point, officers were making two deals per week, sometimes jetting out to two states a day.
They were also required to follow strict financial controls and have audits of their activities. This requirement was not followed. The task force used the funds they collected to finance their operation, paying for equipment, weapons and payroll (which included snitches). The money they used was evidence, and a court order is required to use those funds, a rule the task force circumvented.
The most egregious violation of the task force was not making any arrests. They really just laundered money for drug dealers, straight up. Though the information they gained on traffickers in Atlanta and New York led to the feds making busts, they took no action against the companies participating in the laundering. From 2010 to 2011, the feds seized $30 million from dealers, but the task force laundered $50 million. Furthermore, the task force sent millions of dollars overseas to banks in Panama and China without alerting the DEA.
The feds are still probing into the task force to see what exactly happened from 2010 to 2012. A good number of the commanders involved are no longer with the force. There are plenty of parts to this story. To read the whole sordid tale, check out The Miami Herald’s five part series entitled License To Launder here.