BAL HARBOUR, Fla. – The U.S. Department of Justice is auditing millions of dollars in forfeiture funds seized by the Bal Harbour Police Department.
At a meeting Thursday, Bal Harbour Police Chief Thomas Hunker defended the use of the joint-task force forfeiture funds to village leaders and residents.
"They believe our contract employees should not be paid with forfeiture funds. In their contracts, it says that forfeiture funds can pay those people," said Hunker.
By law, the Bal Harbour Police Department is allowed to keep a portion of the money seized through raids it jointly conducts with other law enforcement agencies. The program took Bal Harbour officers to 13 states, where they arrested more than 200 people, seized drugs, weapons and cash, helping to bring in $56 million.
But there are strict rules on how the money can be spent. The U.S. Department of Justice says it found first-class flights, salary raises, and other benefits for officers in the audit, which are all against federal rules.
"When it comes to record keeping, do you think that perhaps maybe there wasn't things that were done sufficiently?" asked Local 10's Terrell Forney.
"No. There was great record keeping," said Hunker.
So why were members of this small department of just 27 sworn officers flying across the country to fight crime?
Mayor Jean Rosenfield's answer to that question was quite vague telling Local 10's Terrell Forney, "I think the definition of police departments has changed drastically over the last 10 to 15 years. I think you would have to look at the entire nation and the entire national factors that support police departments."
Bal Harbour may be small but it's economic clout is not. There is a vast concentration of wealth here to include retail and real estate.
The Bal Harbour Citizens Coalition has sent a letter to US Attorney General Eric Holder requesting a federal monitor.
The Department's practice of participating in operations that have nothing to do with Bal Harbour was no secret. It touts that effort on its website stressing how the money seized in those operations help pay for state-of-the-art technology, saving the taxpayer money.
Bal Harbour Citizen Coalition member Brian Mulheren told Local 10, "It's good to get money from drug dealers, but it has to be done using proper procedures. The charter of the Bal Harbour Police Department is to enforce the laws and protect the citizens of Bal Harbour, not to go all over the country fighting crime. The government and the police department should not be in the business of making money from money laundering."
Records show there was an average of two arrests per officer in the village that spans about 1 square mile. Nearly 4,000 traffic tickets were written.
Of the $4.2 million Bal Harbour received from the joint-task force forfeiture funds, about $2 million is left. The federal government is now demanding a reimbursement, which would be a big blow to the village's coffers.
People living in Bal Harbour aren't thrilled about the audit.
"It's a lot of money at stake," said one resident.
"I urge you to send Chief Hunker on his way," said another.
"They traveled, according to the federal government findings, that they went to California, not on police business," said Brian Mulheren. "This is misuse of funds."
"I'm telling you right now, we did nothing wrong, I'm waiting for the review to see what the allegations were," said Hunker.
"Do you have confidence in the chief today?" asked Forney.
"At this moment I definitely do," said Bal Harbour Mayor Jean Rosenfield. "Of course we were stunned, but at the same time we know there are answers for all the charges."
The Village of Bal Harbour plans on having an independent firm review the full audit. Bal Harbour Police's involvement in the joint-task force has been suspended. The remaining forfeiture funds have also been frozen.