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Sunday, April 22, 2012

Ex-Cop To Plead Guilty to Stealing From Fellow Officers

Ex-Miami cop to plead guilty to stealing from group of fellow black officers
The Miami Herald by Jay Weaver  -  April 21, 2012

Ex-Miami police officer Vernell Reynolds is set to be plead guilty in Miami federal court to charges that she stole thousands from an advocacy group for her fellow black officers. Vernell Reynolds, a Miami native who grew up in one of the city’s poorest areas, was so well regarded as a cop that her fellow black officers elected her as president of their advocacy group in 2005. But five years later, senior members of the Miami Community Police Benevolent Association discovered lots of money missing from the group’s credit union accounts. They confronted Reynolds about thousands of dollars in “unauthorized” debit-card withdrawals, and she gave them “false” information to hide her alleged theft of the funds, according to federal court records. Reynolds had a serious gambling problem, stretching from the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Broward County to another Indian gaming venue in California, a joint FBI-Miami police corruption probe found. On Wednesday, the 46-year-old Reynolds, now working as a security guard and living in Hollywood, is expected to plead guilty to fraud and tax charges in Miami federal court in a deal that could send her to prison for a few years. Accused of embezzling more than $210,000 in fellow officers’ membership dues, Reynolds plans to admit “taking money from the [association’s] credit union accounts and using it for her own purposes,” according to the charges. Her attorney, Peter Raben, said in a statement that his client devoted much of her life to fighting crime and helping her inner-city community. But the evidence suggests that Reynolds ultimately betrayed the people who had trusted her most: fellow black police officers. Reynolds joined the Miami Police Department in 1993 and held various assignments, including as a neighborhood resource officer in Liberty City. Before Miami, she had worked as a cop in Opa-locka and North Miami. “Even good and strong people battle demons and sometimes fail,” Raben said. “Vernell is remorseful and embarrassed by what has happened, and hopes that someday those who relied upon her and are disappointed in her will come to understand and forgive.”

The group Reynolds once headed, the Miami Community Police Benevolent Association, was founded in 1946. It was formed by Ralph White, one of the first five black police officers who became sworn Miami cops in 1944, according to the group’s website. The group, which evolved through the Jim Crow era of segregation and civil rights movement, now devotes its efforts to charity work, scholarship drives and other fundraisers to benefit the inner-city community. This week, it is promoting a prom dress giveaway on its website to solicit donations for underprivileged teenage girls who want to attend their prom. “They do a lot of charitable things,” said Miami Police Maj. Delrish Moss, noting that about 200 of the 1,100-member force is black. “They are not a collective bargaining unit like a union,” he said, “but they are an advocacy group that speaks out for African-American officers if they believe they’ve been wronged in some way.” Moss, a police spokesman, declined to comment about Reynolds’ prosecution. The association’s president, Stanley Jean-Poix, could not be reached for comment. The association has filed a lawsuit against Reynolds in Miami-Dade Circuit Court in a bid to recover the $210,000 in stolen funds. In the federal criminal case, Reynolds was first indicted early this year on 16 counts of wire fraud for the alleged embezzlement scheme that lasted from September 2008 to June 2010, when she was relieved of duty. She was accused of using an association-issued debit card to access its credit union accounts to make unauthorized cash withdrawals, personal purchases and money transfers to her personal credit union account. Thirteen of the withdrawals were made at the Seminole’s casino in Hollywood, and one was made at another Indian casino in California, records show. With a trial looming, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jared Dwyer told Reynolds’ defense attorneys that he was going to introduce evidence of other fraud by the former Miami cop, including allegations that she “doctored” bank records in her personal bankruptcy petition and submitted false paperwork in an attempt to collect disaster relief funds from the federal government for a Miami-Dade residence.

 In recent months, Reynolds’ lawyers, Raben and Jeffrey Neiman, a former federal prosecutor, negotiated a deal so the indictment would be dropped and their client could plead guilty to one fraud count and one tax violation. The fraud charge is for one withdrawal of $215 on the association’s credit union account number at the Seminole’s casino in 2009. The tax offense is for filing a false return that showed her income was $41,036 in 2009, when “her total income was substantially greater than the stated amount,” according to new charges filed in late March. Indeed, Reynolds’ personal bankruptcy petition filed in fall 2009 showed she had a projected income of about $65,000 as a Miami police officer for that year. Her petition also revealed details of her gambling activities, including gambling income of $94,117 in 2008 and $77,145 in 2007, according to bankruptcy court documents. No gambling income was reported for 2009. Reynolds’ alleged crimes extend beyond the federal case. The Miami-Dade state attorney’s office charged her with grand theft and fraud in March 2011, when she was formally fired from the police department. Reynolds, who had earned more than $140,000 annually in 2007 and 2008, sent her son to private schools on scholarships meant for low-income children, according to state prosecutors. Reynolds still faces trial on the state charges, accused of falsifying tax returns, a birth certificate and other documents to make it appear her lower-income sister was the boy’s guardian, resulting in nearly $7,000 from the nonprofit agency Step up Students. According to prosecutors, the scholarships helped send her son to Miami’s Cushman School and Monsignor Edward Pace High School.

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