This summer, Miami-Dade’s public corruption unit conducted a covert surveillance operation at Matheson Hammock Park. The mission: to catch a cashier suspected of skimming entry fees.
Over two days, six detectives watched for more than 11 hours as Danette Hardemon took cash from drivers entering the park and marina, according to police. At noon on July 10, after interviewing dozens of drivers, investigators detained and questioned the 26-year-old part-time employee -- who also happened to be the cousin of a Miami commissioner.
Police let Hardemon go after consulting with their deputy director and the state attorney's office, and after learning she would be fired. Two months later, members of the public corruption unit signed a belated synopsis of the case explaining they found Hardemon with a cash register that was actually $12 over.
Police say now that Hardemon’s familial ties to Miami Commissioner Keon Hardemon were irrelevant to her release, even as that detail draws attention to the catch-and-release months after it took place. Perhaps harder to explain, though, is why a half dozen corruption investigators would spend two mornings chasing suspicions of petty theft at a park.
“Sometimes it can lead to bigger cases,” said Deputy Miami-Dade Police Director Juan Pérez, who questioned at the time whether police had enough evidence for an arrest, considering Hardemon had no cash on her person.
Pérez said the detail was limited in time to avoid overtime expenses, which has been a big issue with the county's public corruption squad.
The squad was downsized from 20 to 10 officers last summer. It was later learned that three months before the cutbacks, public corruption officers had collected more than $58,000 in overtime during an investigation that led to the arrest of four Hialeah employees on charges of stealing $3,000 in entry fees to a public park.
According to the police synopsis, detectives began monitoring Danette Hardemon in July after Matheson Hammocks Marina Manager Mike McCrink said he noticed that when she was working some drivers were paying their $5 entry fee without receiving the ticket to prove they'd paid.
McCrink, who declined to speak with a reporter, suspected Hardemon wasn't giving out tickets because she was stealing the money. So on July 9, detectives began watching her and questioning drivers who’d paid her their entry fee. The next day, after speaking with about 60 motorists, police found six without tickets and believed they had evidence Hardemon may have taken $30. They read Hardemon her Miranda Rights and questioned her.
Detectives said she initially admitted to stealing petty cash, but then recanted. When they learned she was Hardemon’s cousin, they contacted Pérez, who said that's standard procedure when an arrest is a special interest case or likely to make news. A detective also called prosecutor James Chimera, who wrote in an email that he did not give advice on whether an arrest should be made.
“He asked me if it would make a difference if the subject was related to a commissioner. I explained it would make no difference to the State,” Chimera wrote in an email provided by a state attorney’s office spokesman.
Attempts to reach Danette Hardemon were unsuccessful. Commissioner Keon Hardemon said he hadn't heard of his cousin being detained by detectives until a reporter called him for comment.
"No one called me at all about this," he said. "This is the first time I'm hearing about it."
He dismissed rumors that his cousin was released due to political motivations as dirty politics.
"It's disheartening," he said of the rumors. "But it's expected."