SunTrust Banks participated in a drug sting in South Florida in which law enforcement officers and a former bank branch manager may have behaved improperly, according to a story in the Miami Herald.

However, the Atlanta bank on Thursday denied any implications that it acted improperly in cooperating with authorities.

A task force established by a city police department and a sheriff's office conducted the operation out of a SunTrust branch in Bal Harbour, Fla., starting in 2009, the Herald reported, citing bank records, police reports and interviews.

The task force laundered $71.5 million through the branch in an attempt to penetrate overseas drug cartels, and SunTrust facilitated the transfers by sending money to correspondent banks with instructions to move the money to banks in more than a dozen countries including China, Ecuador, Panama and elsewhere, the story said.

The story questioned whether the money transfers violated federal policies that permit law enforcement to launder money to infiltrate criminal groups, as long as only domestic banks are used. It raised other questions, too, including whether sufficient records were kept of hundreds of thousands of dollars of withdrawals made by the police, whether other funds were improperly diverted, why the Herald found no records of arrests from the operation, and if a key SunTrust branch employee was too friendly with the police officers involved.

It was unclear exactly what blame, if any, may lie with the police, the bank or any employees. A SunTrust spokeswoman declined to comment point by point about details in the story, but she defended the bank's actions.

"It is common for banks to cooperate with law enforcement and we have strict protocols when we do so," she wrote in an email to American Banker. "We followed all protocols in cooperation with law enforcement in this case."

The task force in question consisted of the Bal Harbour police department and the Glades County Sheriff's Office.

Bal Harbour police are reportedly investigating undercover officers, and officials there have asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate the bank's relations to the task force, including where money withdrawn by police officers went.

SunTrust's branch was used as an "operations center" where officers were "hauling duffel bags stuffed with drug cash into the facility, sorting the money with tellers and converging in the manager's office for meetings," the story said.

The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., and the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta declined to comment about the story to American Banker. The Federal Reserve Board and the Miami office of the Atlanta Fed did not respond to requests for comment from American Banker.

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