Sheriff’s Office faces scrutiny again

The Glades County Sheriff’s Office may be defending itself once again after the U.S. Justice Department opened up an investigation into millions of dollars reportedly taken in by officers during a money-laundering sting operation.

For three years, the sheriff’s office teamed up with the Bal Harbour Police Department, posing as money launderers and taking more than $55.6 million from drug cartels and other criminal groups, according to a series published by the Miami Herald in June 2015.

The Tri-County Task Force was formed at a time when law enforcement agencies across the state were dealing with severe budget cuts due to the massive foreclosure crisis in Florida. The two agencies saw an opportunity to bring in money through a program called Equitable Sharing, which allows local law enforcement agencies to claim seized property, like cash, cars and boats, in federal court and share the proceeds with the Justice Department, according to the Miami Herald.

However, a probe into the task force by the Department of Justice three years ago found it was misspending money by using the seized property to pay for police salaries, which is against the law.

The Miami Herald’s investigation reportedly found even more mismanagement of funds, with officers spending far more money during undercover operations which was never reported to federal investigators.

According to the Herald, officers spent hundreds of thousands on luxury hotels, first-class flights and thousand-dollar dinners, receipts of which cannot be found by Bal Harbour officials.

Confidential sources claim bank documents show the task force brought in millions more than what it actually reported.

So how did the small, rural county sheriff’s office get involved in one of the largest money-laundering operations in Florida history?

A relationship between the former police chief of Bal Harbour and a former Miami-Dade officer working for Glades County Sheriff’s Office reportedly brought the two agencies together.

At a time when money was tight, it seemed like a good opportunity for Glades County.

“If you don’t have a lot of people, you don’t have a big tax base. And that does hurt us. The forfeiture money allowed us to have resources that normally we wouldn’t have, you know, patrol cars, vests, guns for the deputies, ammunition, this training room, the training equipment is all paid with forfeiture funds,” said Sergeant Duane Pottorff, chief of law enforcement for Glades County Sheriff’s Office, in an interview with the Miami Herald.

Sheriff Stuart Whiddon played a critical role in the task force, according to the series, using his sheriff’s power to deputize two retired police officers living in New York. This reportedly gave the task force access to northeastern connections.

But relationship between the Bal Harbour police and Glades County reportedly grew strained when the sheriff’s office agreed to open corporate credit cards in its name.

According to Pottorff, the sheriff’s office had a difficult time getting receipts from Bal Harbour.

“They controlled everything — the bank accounts, the money,” said Pottorff to the Herald. “We could never get the records from them, and we asked them 100 times. We were little Glades County. We had no experience in money-laundering investigations.”

Former Bal Harbour Chief Tom Hunker reportedly disputes those claims.

Apart from the alleged mismanagement of funds, both agencies were illegally using federal sharing dollars to pay for staff salaries. Glades County was ordered to return $50,000 that was used to cover part of a staff salary, and to return its portion of equitable sharing dollars, which amounted to $679,116, according to the Herald.

Commissioner Donna Storter Long told the Herald there could have been more oversight, and that despite the size of the Glades County Sheriff’s Office, it has the same responsibility for honest police work.

Pottorff said he and other members of the sheriff’s office are prepared to defend the agency once again, but believes the fact that his agency was unable to get receipts from the Bal Harbour department may be what keeps Glades County from getting into trouble this time around.

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