Miami Herald investigative reporter Michael Sallah was tipped off by a mysterious text message.
"It was... night and all of a sudden I get a text photograph of three notebooks under a desk," he told WLRN in an interview. "And I was told that these were in the [village of Bal Harbour] police department and that I had never seen these records before."
Sallah was lead investigator on the Herald's License to Launder series -- a version of which aired on WLRN. The Herald’s series looked into an unlikely anti-money laundering task force run by the Bal Harbour Police Department and the Glades County Sheriff's Office from 2010 to 2012.
The investigation found that the so-called Tri-County Task Force helped launder at least $55 million for international criminal organizations and kept about $2 million in money laundering fees that, instead of being treated as evidence, funded lavish undercover living.
Sallah received a confidential text message within days of his series running in the Miami Herald. He made a public records request and started looking through the binders, which officials had mistakenly thought were copies of records Sallah had already seen.
"In going through there we found 100 deals, additionally, cut by this task force with criminal groups and cartels," Sallah says. "The task force didn't just launder $55.6 million, it's actually now over $70 million based on these new records. The police didn't just take in $1.7 million for their commissions... for brokering the deal, they took in $2.4 million."
The Herald's investigation found that the task force had withdrawn hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash without any real explanation where the money went. And, perhaps most disturbingly, found that the task force had helped criminal organizations launder those millions of dollars without ever making a single arrest on its own. (The task force claims it fed information that helped the DEA make about 200 arrests. The DEA was skeptical that the number was that high.)
Listen to our interview with Michael Sallah, the Miami Herald's investigative reporter.
Sallah recently wrote about the latest License to Launder developments:
"With federal agents bearing down on a troubled sting operation run by Bal Harbour police, the officers for the unit began striking more deals with criminal groups to bring in massive amounts of drug cash.
In one month alone, they traveled 22 times to cities outside Florida to collect suitcases filled with cash, even as federal agents complained the police were ignoring their questions about the undercover operation.
By the time federal investigators issued a subpoena in 2012, the police task force was striking as many as three deals in a single day to launder money for the drug cartels and other criminal groups.
New records obtained last week by the Miami Herald show the Tri-County Task Force carried out a rush of deals while fending off federal agents in what appears to be one of the largest ever state undercover money laundering operations in Florida.
Instead of the officers laundering $55.6 million in the course of their operation, the new records show the total reached $71.5 million -- with much of the money coming in the final, frenetic months of the task force’s existence.
'The sky was the limit,' said Dennis Fitzgerald, an attorney and former DEA agent who examined the data at the Herald’s request. 'When you’ve got no supervision, you can do whatever you want to do.'"
Read the rest of Michael Sallah's update to the License to Launder series here.