Screen shot of Miami Herald's page for "License to Launder" series

Screen shot of Miami Herald’s page for “License to Launder” series

Nearly two weeks ago, the Miami Herald published a major investigative journalism series on two small Florida police agencies, which engaged in undercover money laundering operations with criminal organizations involved in drug trafficking so officers and the police departments themselves could claim millions of dollars as their own.

The series, “License to Launder: Cash, Cops & the Cartels,” has not received much media attention at all. Whether that is because the essence of the corruption was already known is unclear, however, the corruption detailed at all levels of government is staggering—from the money laundering itself to the coverup by federal investigators seemingly unwilling to investigate anyone in the task force who committed crimes.

It is a stark example of how the War on Drugs is more about how police departments and officers can profit than stopping the flow of drug money. Indeed, officers in this case needed money to keep flowing in order to continue living as high rollers.

Bal Harbour is a small community of around 2,500 people with “oceanfront condominiums” and “elegant boutiques.” It had one reported violent crime in 2012 – an aggravated assault. But, beginning in 2010, the department partnered with the police department in Glades County, one of the poorest counties in Florida.

The police agencies formed the Tri-County Task Force, a state task force, to conduct undercover operations. They took place all over the United States but it would be difficult to believe they were carried out by officers interested in bringing drug traffickers to justice.

The task force made no arrests and engaged in no effort to have the Florida State’s Attorney prosecute any cases. What the officers wanted was money, plain and simple, and they took advantage of the federal government’s Equitable Sharing program to claim drug cash as their own.

When it comes to the War on Drugs, agencies operate under the presumption that undercover units have to typically “seize far more money from criminal groups than what a task force launders and returns to the streets.” That is why one of the most shocking details is that the task force “passed tips that led to federal agents seizing nearly $30 million.” Yet, during the same period, the task force laundered $50 million.

Based on “confidential records of the undercover investigation” and “thousands of records including cash pickup reports, emails, DEA reports, bank statements, and wire transfers for millions of dollars,” the Miami Herald uncovered the following:

—The Justice Department Officer of Inspector General found the task force had laundered over $56 million dollars “without adequate written policies or procedures, prosecutorial oversight, or audits of the undercover bank accounts.” The amount, however, was actually closer to $83 million.

—Officers made cash deposits at a SunTrust Bank about a block from the Bal Harbour police station, which totaled $28 million. None of the deposits appear in records created by the police.

—At least 30 times, police deposited funds into banks and storefront businesses to “conceal drug cash for criminal groups,” but they never documented their actions. The total amount of money distributed was around $20 million.

—Police had evidence against these businesses of crimes, but most of the businesses remain open.

—Millions of dollars were sent to overseas banks in countries like China and Panama. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) was not alerted or made aware of the 138 wires totaling $6.9 million in a 15-month period.

—Officers withdrew over $547,000 for themselves, and auditors later uncovered $800,000, which police withdrew without documenting transactions.

—Nearly 40 times, the officers took first-class or business flights. They stayed at high-end hotel resorts, such as the Bellagio in Las Vegas or the Rincon Beach Resort & Casino in Puerto Rico. They dined at upscale restaurants like Morton’s in North Miami Beach and the Chop House in Chicago. At the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino, officers spent $9,410 in 2010.

—Tens of thousands of dollars was spent on FN P90 submachine guns.

—Hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent on iPads, laptops and other electronics.

—Prominent attorneys in the Miami region received thousands of dollars in “bank wires,” but police never investigated the wires of drug cash. There is no record of any attempt by officers to try and interview the lawyers’ clients to uncover their connections to potential drug dealers.

—The FBI stunningly determined that there did not appear to be any violations “within the FBI’s jurisdiction” that could be investigated. It never conducted any audits of the state task force’s finances.

As one former investigator for the Drug Enforcement Agency’s office of Professional Responsibility put it, the FBI’s determination was akin to “finding a dead body then not taking fingerprints, blood spatter, DNA, and all the other forensics,” which are supposed to be done. “It’s unbelievable.”

A veteran criminal lawyer quoted in the series suggested the Justice Department should have asked much earlier “why a task force from two small communities with no money laundering problems was flying across the country to collect cash belonging to drug cartels.”

The DEA was hugely complicit in the crimes committed by officers engaged in these operations, which continued until late 2012.

While some officers were forced out of work after the money laundering was investigated by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General, no officers have been charged with any crimes. And, stunningly, some of the high-ranking officers involved in the task force still brazenly defend the task force’s operations. They were quoted in the Miami Herald’s series published on June 19.

Read the full series here.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."