© 2024
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Probe Finds $70 Million Money-Laundering Bust Might Have Been Dirty Itself


The author Carl Hiaasen writes novels about the wackiness of Florida - politics, crime, culture. And some joke that the real Florida plays out like a Hiaasen novel. Well, maybe that's true. We're learning more about an unlikely partnership between the Glades County Sheriff's office and the Bal Harbour Police Department. The former is a rural county on the edge of the Everglades. The latter is an exclusive oceanfront community. But for three years now, they have been running one of the state's largest undercover money-laundering taskforces. Kenny Malone from member station WLRN has been collaborating with the Miami Herald reporting on this, and he has the story.

MICHAEL SALLAH: Here's all the money that's going in.

KENNY MALONE, BYLINE: This is the Miami Herald's Michael Sallah.

SALLAH: There are seven accounts. They're all under dummy corporate names.

MALONE: He and a fellow reporter were given exclusive access to the task force's records. The unit was posing as money launderers for international drug cartels and criminal organizations. Sallah found records of officers flying all over the country.

SALLAH: Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, San Juan, Boston...

MALONE: Where money couriers would secretly hand off whatever they were carrying cash in.

SALLAH: A blender box, a Gucci gift box, a tortilla box, a Chicago Bears T-shirt.

MALONE: Each of those would be taken to a beige trailer behind the fancy Bal Harbour shops, get dumped out onto a table...

SALLAH: Twenty-thousand, $50,000, $100,000, $200,000...

MALONE: ...And counted.

SALLAH: ...Three-hundred-and - $406,000 - $500,000 - 600 - 799,000 - $1.361 million.

MALONE: To keep up appearances, the unit would keep a cut of the cash from each Gucci bag or tortilla box or whatever since real money launderers aren't supposed to be doing charity work. The rest of the cash was laundered, usually through a business, and then returned to the cartel or criminal organization. Records show the unit helped launder more than $70 million.


TOM HUNKER: Ladies and gentlemen, I'm Chief Tom Hunker of the Bal Harbour Police Department.

MALONE: The operation was spearheaded by Bal Harbour's chief of police at the time, Tom Hunker, who didn't return WLRN's calls requesting an interview. But we do have these not-so-great recordings from a 2012 Bal Harbour village council meeting.


HUNKER: I want to go after the drug dealers that are here and take them off the street and take the profit out of it. And that's why I got involved in this task force.

MALONE: After Hunker was done speaking at that meeting, the village council opened up the floor to the public.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I do see a hand raised. Brian?

MALONE: Brian Mulheren, a retired New York City detective and head of the Bal Harbour Citizen's Coalition, had concerns about the task force.


BRIAN MULHEREN: What is the Bal Harbour Police Department operating a task force with the sheriff of Glades County?

MALONE: Bal Harbour is a small town, and Mulheren told me one of the reasons he was suspicious of the task force was that he'd see officers hanging out at fancy hotels or smoking cigars on the waterfront.

MULHEREN: In the Bal Harbour shops, in the restaurants eating in Carpaccio's all the time.

MALONE: Carpaccio's is a pretty nice Italian place. The unit had kept around $2 million in laundering fees. Experts say that should have been treated as evidence. But the Miami Herald found that the task force was using it for first-class flights, luxury car rentals, fancy hotels and fancy dinners.

SALLAH: We found $400 dinners at Carpaccio's, a $450 dinner at the Chop House in Chicago, a thousand-dollar dinner at the Morton's in North Miami Beach. For a unit that was very specifically looking for signs of financial crime, they didn't spare any expenses in their own spending.

MALONE: Maybe most troubling is that the Herald's investigation found that the task force couldn't account for a single arrest on its own. The task force claimed that it passed on tips to federal agents, which led to around 200 arrests. The DEA says some arrests were made, but the agency was skeptical of the 200 number.

MULHEREN: We're passing the village hall...

MALONE: Brian Mulheren, the retired New York City detective.

MULHEREN: ...Into the parking lot...

MALONE: He takes me to where a beige trailer used to be - the task force's old headquarters. He says he never felt good about what was happening in there.

MULHEREN: But I didn't realize the amount of money that was involved. It wasn't - they didn't make any arrests. They didn't prosecute anybody. They didn't go after the bad guys. They didn't do anything.

MALONE: Mulheren says that in essence, the task force wound up being money launderers for criminal organizations.

MULHEREN: They facilitated and allowed these organizations to make money and move money all over the country, all over the world. That's what they were doing.

MALONE: The task force disbanded in 2012. The following year, Tom Hunker resigned under pressure as chief of Bal Harbour police. He told the Miami Herald there was no wrongdoing within his anti-money-laundering unit. Officials have launched an audit into the task force, but say it may be a long time before they account for all of the millions of dollars that ran through Florida's unlikely money laundering task force. For NPR News, I'm Kenny Malone in Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kenny Malone
Kenny Malone is a correspondent for NPR's Planet Money podcast. Before that, he was a reporter for WNYC's Only Human podcast. Before that, he was a reporter for Miami's WLRN. And before that, he was a reporter for his friend T.C.'s homemade newspaper, Neighborhood News.