NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Federal authorities say a Miami-Dade police officer assigned to investigate departmental wrongdoing was instead working on behalf of a New Jersey-based drug trafficking organization, helping members elude security at major airports and move hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal proceeds.
Lt. Ralph Mata of Broward County, Fla., made a first appearance Wednesday in a federal courtroom in Newark on drug trafficking and illegal money transaction charges. He was not required to enter a plea.
Wearing a navy suit and standing next to his lawyer, Mata spoke only to clarify a question from U.S. District Judge Cathy Waldor. After court, defense attorney Jay Surgent said Mata denies all the charges and plans to defend his innocence "to the hilt." Mata remained free on $500,000 bail.
The FBI says the 45-year-old Mata was known as "the Milk Man" to New Jersey cocaine dealers and helped move money, partly by escorting traffickers carrying cash so they could bypass security at airports in New York and Miami.
The U.S. attorney's office in New Jersey also alleged that Mata used his airport connections to smuggle weapons concealed in luggage to the dealers and even suggested how they might carry out a potential hit on a rival gang.
Surgent said the charges against his client were cooked up by disgruntled individuals looking to get lighter prison sentences in an FBI investigation into a New Jersey-based drug gang that smuggled cocaine from the Dominican Republic and Ecuador in shipments of bananas and other produce.
"He (Mata) was brought into this case as collateral damage from other people, and we question the credibility of the U.S. government's witnesses," Surgent said.
Federal authorities said Mata came under the FBI's radar about two years ago during the investigation Surgent described. In that case, three men have pleaded guilty in New Jersey and are awaiting sentencing.
Surgent said Mata has been suspended without pay from the police force. Mata is a 22 year-veteran of the force, where he previously worked in the canine unit at Miami International Airport before being assigned to the department's internal affairs office in 2010.
The defense lawyer said Mata would return to Florida, where he will be under electronic monitor and in home confinement and will only be allowed to travel to New Jersey for his next court date.