Miami Beach fire inspector pleads guilty in federal club-extortion racket case

 

A Miami Beach firefighter pleaded guilty to an extortion charge in federal court, admitting he shook down an Ocean Drive club owner for cash in exchange for protection from code inspections.

jweaver@MiamiHerald.com

Chai Footman made six figures as a fire inspector for the city of Miami Beach.

But apparently, his $116,000 salary with overtime pay was not enough.

On Friday, Footman admitted to a Miami federal judge that he shook down a South Beach nightclub owner for thousands of dollars in exchange for kid-glove treatment during code inspections.

Footman, 36, pleaded guilty to conspiring with a ring of code enforcement officers and a fellow firefighter to extort the owner of Club Dolce on Ocean Drive, in a sensational case in which an undercover FBI agent posing as the club manager fooled them all as he partied with Footman and the other municipal employees.

Footman, who joined Miami Beach Fire-Rescue in 1999, faces between 1½ and two years in prison at his Oct. 19 sentencing before U.S. District Judge Robert Scola. In his plea agreement, Footman has promised to cooperate in the investigation, which resulted in the arrests of six other Miami Beach employees and a Miami-Dade police officer

“Chai is a good person who made a decision he truly regrets,” said attorney Jeffrey Neiman, who worked on his defense with lawyer David Macey. “Chai has taken ownership of that bad decision and he looks forward to putting this matter behind him.”

In April, the FBI arrested Footman and Beach firefighter Henry Bryant, 45, along with the city’s lead code enforcement inspector Jose Alberto, 41, and fellow code officers Willie Grant, 56, Orlando Gonzalez, 32, Ramon Vasallo, 31, and Vicente Santiesteban, 29.

All were indicted on charges of conspiring to commit extortion and numerous attempted extortion offenses. Prosecutor Jared Dwyer accused them of shaking down an unnamed club owner, demanding he pay “protection” to avoid city fines and inspections in the alleged $25,000 scheme.

Last month, Santiesteban pleaded guilty to the conspiracy charge in a plea deal.

As part of the FBI’s undercover probe, agents also arrested Miami-Dade police officer Daniel Mack, 47, and accused him of helping Bryant transport more than a dozen kilograms of fake cocaine for undercover agents in exchange for $25,000. Mack and Bryant were charged with conspiring to possess and distribute more than five kilograms of cocaine.

The arrests shocked Miami Beach officials, even though accusations documented by FBI special agent Matthew Fowler in criminal complaints suggest the arrested employees have been taking bribes or transporting drugs for years — just the same as employees prosecuted in prior Beach cases.

The FBI in 1997 charged three Beach police officers with running “protection” schemes for bars and acting as “security” for coke deals. In 2008, three building department inspectors were arrested for allegedly soliciting and accepting bribes from a developer.

“I’m horrified,” Miami Beach Mayor Matti Herrera Bower said after the arrests.

The FBI began investigating Miami Beach’s code officers and fire inspectors last June after the Club Dolce owner complained that Alberto, the lead code enforcement inspector, threatened to fine his club $30,000 for littered promotional fliers unless he received a $3,000 bribe, according to court records.

Agents made the owner a paid informant, gave him money to pay bribes and sent in an undercover agent to pose as a club manager, according to the criminal complaints. Over the summer, the owner paid Alberto $5,100 in weekly installments, according to the records. Alberto then began setting up meetings between the undercover club manager and other code officers, who also accepted payments.

In August, Footman, the fire inspector, introduced himself to the club owner and offered to protect the club from fire inspections in exchange for comped parties, like the $3,633 in food and drinks he and three women consumed on one occasion that month, court records say.

Footman later accepted three payments totaling $3,800 from the FBI’s undercover agent who posed as the club manager, court records show.

In October, Footman made arrangements for the agent to meet Bryant, a Beach senior fire inspector, when the club needed to secure a permit for a new sign, records show.

“Footman explained that he would have Bryant come by and meet [the agent],” according to the criminal complaints. “Bryant was in his firefighter uniform when he came to the club and was with another firefighter at the time. Bryant gave [the agent] his business card.”

By that time, the FBI had tapped Alberto’s phone.

In early November, Alberto separately suggested that the club contact Bryant, who had a long history of teaming up with him, records show.

“I have worked with [Alberto] for about 12 years on every little gig that I had,” Bryant told the undercover agent, court records say. “I mean we kept a place open that had violated every [expletive] rule in the law — but the guy was paying us $4,000.’’

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