NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — A former Miami police lieutenant who authorities said used his position to help drug smugglers elude security at major airports was sentenced to 10 years in prison Wednesday by a judge who called his actions "truly reprehensible."
Ralph Mata, a 22-year veteran of the Miami-Dade police department and a lieutenant for 11 years, stood stoically as the sentence was read. His wife sat in the gallery with her eyes closed and her chin resting on her hand. The two embraced afterward.
During a statement to the court, Mata apologized and said he had "tarnished the badge." He called his crimes the "inexcusable, irrational actions of a foolish man" that dishonored his family, his job and the community he once served.
"I realized I didn't have the courage to deal with my weaknesses" that included a drinking problem, he said.
U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton was unmoved by Mata's apology or by his attorneys' noting that he has cooperated with authorities since his arrest last year and made numerous secret audio and video recordings that could lead to further prosecutions.
According to Wigenton, the evidence showed Mata wasn't a dupe forced into helping the drug ring, but instead was an active participant who "stopped at nothing" to offer his assistance. That included traveling between Florida, New York and the Dominican Republic, and setting up bank accounts to receive drug proceeds.
Prosecutors alleged Mata, who was nicknamed "The Milk Man," helped members of the New Jersey-based organization move hundreds of thousands of dollars in illicit profits.
He also allegedly used his airport contacts to smuggle weapons concealed in luggage to the dealers and even suggested how they might carry out a potential hit on a rival gang.
The sentence was squarely in the middle of the range contained in federal sentencing guidelines which recommended a sentence between nine years and a little more than 11 years.
Mata's attorneys had sought probation and community service, or at minimum, a sentence below the guideline range. They got neither.
"The question that comes to mind is, 'Why?'" Wigenton said to Mata. "What motivated an individual at your level to engage in such an absolutely egregious act?"
According to the criminal complaint, Mata was instrumental in dismantling two major drug gangs in the city of Miami Gardens. He also spent about four years overseeing the police department's canine unit at Miami International Airport, and in 2010 was assigned to the department's internal affairs unit that investigates allegations of police misconduct.
Mata pleaded guilty in March to aiding and abetting a narcotics conspiracy, conspiring to distribute cocaine and money laundering. The first two counts could have carried a maximum sentence of life in prison.
"We are talking about a man overcome by greed," Assistant U.S. Attorney Mary Toscano told Wigenton. "He thought he was untouchable."
Jay Surgent, an attorney representing Mata, said he wouldn't appeal the sentence but that he would seek to have it reconsidered if Mata's cooperation yields additional prosecutions in the future.