It began in a trailer in the shadows of one of Florida's most elegant malls, a brazen plan by two small police agencies to take on the hemisphere's most dangerous drug cartels. Forming their own task force, members of the Bal Harbour police and Glades County Sheriff's Office struck deals with criminal organizations across the country in what grew into the largest state undercover money-laundering investigation in years.
Posing as launderers, the task force took in $55.6 million from the criminal groups, keeping thousands each week for themselves for laundering the money. They spent lavishly on first-class flights and five-star hotel stays. They bought Mac computers and submachine guns.
In the end, they made no arrests of their own, and ended up returning all the money they laundered to the criminal groups. They also withdrew $1 million in cash with no records to show where the money went – and struck millions in additional money-laundering deals that were never disclosed.
The Herald spent eight months investigating the Tri-County Task Force, which carried out the largest state undercover money laundering investigation in decades.
Reporters gained rare access to the confidential files of the unit, which laundered millions for drug cartels to infiltrate their laundering network. The Herald reviewed thousands of documents, including task force reports, internal emails, bank wire records and DEA reports to track every laundering deal – 235 in all – including commissions kept by the officers for laundering $55.6 million in drug cash from 2010 to 2012.
The Herald also examined hundreds of bank statements to trace task force expenses on hotels, airfare, dinners and purchases, including dozens of computers and other electronic equipment. It traced money to 349 export businesses the task force used to launder drug dollars, drawing on state and federal court records and databases to check criminal histories and business affiliations of the owners. Reporters also used task force records to track some cash payments to informants, nearly $500,000, for steering money laundering deals to the task force.