Rumors Flying Like Bullets

For more than a year the Florida Department of Law Enforcement has been investigating four high-level Miami police officers suspected of stealing money intended to pay for off-duty security at several public housing sites.

The case quickly took on a significance among Miami cops greater than the alleged misdeeds of the officers. It became a symbol of the crossroads at which the department had arrived. Would cronyism and corruption trump accountability and transparency? Was the department sufficiently reformed following the indictment of thirteen officers and the resignation of Chief Raul Martinez? The investigation began under Martinez, who had a reputation for trying to bury scandals that involved his command staff. And it continued when the new chief, John Timoney, rode into town with a mandate to clean up the place.

Two of the suspects were Martinez allies who still hold powerful positions: Capt. Armando Martinez, deputy commander of internal affairs; and Maj. Mario Garcia, in charge of the South District substation. (The other two suspects are lieutenants Alex Oliva and Ramon Fernandez.) If the officers walked, the perception among the grunts would be that high-level officers are immune from punishment. That's pretty demoralizing and disorienting for people charged with enforcing the law. Many officers seem to have made up their minds: Nothing less than convictions will do; innocence isn't an option.

It doesn't help that the case has lasted so long, or that former Chief Martinez and new Chief Timoney both elected to leave Armando Martinez in internal affairs, a highly sensitive position where he has access to important information. All this allowed rumors to ebb and flow and take on lives of their own, which they did last week when cops were practically beating down reporters' doors, mine included, whipped into a frenzy by the latest wisp of unsubstantiated news. Word had leaked that Martinez and Garcia worked out a deal with prosecutors allowing them to retire without being charged. Not only that, but Chief Timoney had personally negotiated the deal. FDLE agents reportedly were furious because they'd been left out of the loop.

One incensed cop, with more than twenty years on the force, arranged a meeting with me to vent: "If a civilian committed these crimes, they would be prosecuted. However, because they are ranking police personnel, nothing will happen to them!" Others used the telephone: "This needs to get out, this is a travesty."

Except in this case the rumors were not true.

Amos Rojas is the FDLE's regional director. Normally he would not discuss a pending case, but this one had become such common knowledge, and the rumors were spreading so rampantly, he deemed it important to clear up the misinformation. His only condition was that he would not talk about the merits of the case itself until it has been concluded. "We are proceeding with this investigation, and if we can substantiate criminal charges, we will. That's our goal and the goal of the State Attorney's Office," Rojas told me. There is no deal he knows of with prosecutors to allow anyone to retire in exchange for not being prosecuted. "I would be surprised if the State Attorney's Office were trying to negotiate some kind of deal and we didn't know anything about it," Rojas added. "We are working closely with them on it." (An SAO spokesman declined to comment.)

And Chief Timoney never tried to negotiate anything on behalf of the officers, Rojas said. "I went to the Miami Police Department and briefed Timoney on this case three days after he took office. He was very concerned that if he reassigned these officers it would imply they were guilty. I agreed and said we could investigate and then find out they had done nothing wrong. I recommended that the best thing to do was nothing."

Again Rojas would not talk about the specifics of the case itself, but I've known about it for months. I've talked to officers subpoenaed to testify, and others who have viewed documents related to the investigation.

It goes something like this: Garcia wrote a grant proposal to the county to have off-duty Miami police patrol federal and local public-housing properties within the city from 1997 to 2001, for $150,000 per year. Garcia, Martinez, and the other officers are under investigation for allegedly assigning themselves much of the off-duty work while never showing up for the job. Investigators are also examining whether compensation for administrative duties was duplicated. "Supposedly they were on patrol at the sites, but nobody ever saw them," said one officer who worked many of the off-duty jobs funded by the grant and who has talked to investigators. "It became a joke among us, that these guys were making all this money from the grant but were never there." At least one of the two lieutenants under investigation, Alex Oliva, received an offer of immunity in exchange for his testimony. It's not known if he accepted.

Because federal money was involved, the FBI was asked to review the matter as well, which contributed to the delay in resolving the case. Eventually the feds took a pass. Another reason the case has taken so long is that it required investigators to review thousands of pages of documents, including invoices that had to be cross referenced with duty rosters and other evidence to determine whether the officers were actually present at the site during the hours for which they were paid.

Rojas suspects the rumor mill got cranked up after Chief Timoney visited FDLE offices about four weeks ago for a second update on the case. "The chief never asked me for anything," Rojas said.

Timoney would do well to take note. The fact that so many of his officers are suspicious about how the investigation has been handled, and that they are quick to believe it's been compromised, shows how little faith they have in their superiors.

The Miami Police Department desperately needs to be calmed down. Talk of Timoney receiving offers to jet off and help rebuild Iraq doesn't help.

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