Ed Brown, the newly appointed city manager in Opa-locka, vehemently denies he was ever involved in a government kickback case more than a decade ago that led to convictions of a commissioner, an unregistered lobbyist, a city engineer and a public works contractor.
“I have never been a person of interest nor a witness in any cases,” Brown declared in an email to the Miami Herald.
Public records obtained by the Herald, however, present a different picture. The records show Brown was questioned twice as a witness before and after the former girlfriend of an Opa-locka commissioner said he delivered cash payments to the commissioner at a Miami-Dade bar and once in front of Brown’s home.
Brown was not charged. But his background came into focus again last month when he applied for the soon-to-be-vacant city manager job. The city’s job search unfolded as Opa-locka remained under the cloud of an FBI corruption investigation that has been ongoing for four years — and involves at least one of the characters in the prior investigation.
So far, a city commissioner, city manager and public works supervisor, along with the mayor’s son, have pleaded guilty to shaking down local business owners.
In the prior state corruption case, investigators with the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office and county ethics commission questioned Brown on two occasions in 2006 as a witness in their probe of the government kickback scheme. At the time Brown was an unregistered Opa-locka lobbyist for the engineering contractor that made the illicit payments, records show.
As part of the same probe, investigators questioned the former girlfriend of one-time Opa-locka Commissioner Terence Pinder, who was suspected of receiving thousands of dollars in kickbacks from the engineering contractor. The ex-girlfriend, Ginger Williams, told investigators that she saw Brown and fellow Opa-locka lobbyist Dante Starks deliver cash payments to Pinder after his election to the city commission in 2004.
Williams said Pinder didn’t have a regular job and was always broke.
During the investigation, a state prosecutor asked the ex-girlfriend, “were there any people that [Pinder] would see or hang around with that you had reason to believe were giving him money?”
“Yes, sir,” Williams responded. “Ed Brown. Dante Starks.”
She said Pinder used to meet with Brown and Starks to collect his cash payments at the Legends Sports Bar and Grill, a restaurant in Miami Gardens’ El Palacio Hotel. She also said Pinder once followed Brown to his home in Bunche Park, where the commissioner collected a cash payment from him. (Last year, Pinder took his own life just before he was going to be arrested in an unrelated state corruption case.)
Brown, 60, did not respond to multiple phone calls, texts and emails seeking comment.
In a 3-2 vote last week, the city commission selected Brown as city manager over two other finalists. His selection was subject to a criminal background check as well as approval by a state oversight board appointed last year by Gov. Rick Scott because of the city’s financial emergency.
On Tuesday, the governor’s chief inspector general, Eric Miller, wrote the commission and Mayor Myra Taylor, chastising them for not heeding the oversight board’s advice to pick a skilled outsider. In the letter, Miller “recommended the city re-advertise the position or reopen the selection process.”
But then — without explanation — Miller, the governor’s designee, changed his mind, issuing a letter giving the commissioners and mayor the option to keep Brown as the new city manager as long as he signed a pledge to uphold Opa-locka’s year-old agreement with the state to resolve its financial crisis.
“If the City Commission insists upon proceeding with its current selection of [Brown], it must closely monitor his progress in taking control of the city’s operations,” Miller wrote.
It’s unclear whether the governor has the authority to veto a city manager hire, although he and the oversight board both could refuse to fund the position.
Brown’s proposed salary is $112,500 a year, though he does not have a contract yet.
Some longtime residents of Opa-locka, a city of 16,000, said they were disappointed and dumbfounded by the state’s failure to thwart Brown’s appointment.
“Everybody is really pissed off,” said community activist Alvin Burke. “This letter is an insult. The governor and oversight board obviously don’t care about the people of Opa-locka. This sends the message to the commission and mayor that it’s going to be business as usual with Brown as city manager.”
Brown was sworn in as Opa-locka’s city manager at the commission meeting Wednesday, but not before grumbling by him, Mayor Taylor and Commissioner John Riley about the inspector general’s demand that Brown sign the pledge agreement.
While he would not comment for this story, Brown said in an earlier email to the Herald that allegations of his involvement in the more than decade-old government kickback case were “unfounded and seriously inaccurate.”
However, in 2006, Brown gave two statements to prosecutor Joseph Centorino, who inquired about his lobbying for APAC, the engineering contractor at the center of the kickback scheme.
“Are there any city officials who have been involved with APAC from a business standpoint?” Centorino asked Brown in 2006.
“Not to my knowledge,” Brown answered.
Between 2004 and 2006, APAC won several multimillion-dollar sewer, water and drainage contracts in Opa-locka by paying kickbacks to the city engineer, Emmanuel Nwadike, and to Commissioner Pinder, records show.
Nwadike served almost two years in prison. APAC’s owner, Faustin Denis, who made the bribe payments, got probation.
Pinder served probation.
Starks, who also worked as an unregistered lobbyist for APAC, pleaded guilty and received the same sentence as Pinder. Although he has not been charged in the newer, ongoing FBI investigation, Starks is known to be a target.
Brown eventually had a falling out with APAC and sued the engineering contractor, asserting he was owed consulting and contingency fees on various projects. The dispute was settled, with Brown receiving a payment of $105,000 from APAC. The company had previously paid Brown more than $118,000.
Before being picked as Opa-locka’s new city manager, Brown worked as the interim city manager over the summer of 2015 when Kelvin Baker resigned. Brown, who was the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency executive director at the time, had previously served as assistant city manager between 1999 and 2001 and again in 2011.
At last week’s meeting, Mayor Taylor, Vice Mayor Joseph Kelley and Commissioner Riley voted to hire Brown.
Opa-locka started the process of looking for a new city manager in April, when City Manager Yvette Harrell announced she planned to resign this summer.
In addition to the four individuals already convicted, the U.S. attorney’s office plans to seek a grand jury indictment charging others with corruption stemming from the 4-year-old investigation into Opa-locka’s government.
Excerpt from ex-girlfriend’s testimony
In her statement to investigators, Ginger Williams said that Opa-locka’s new city manager, Ed Brown, delivered cash payments to Commissioner Terence Pinder more than a decade ago.
Q. Were there ever any other times when you saw [Pinder] meet with Ed Brown, or saw him get money from Ed Brown?
A. No, just the times that he say[s] he was going to meet with Ed Brown and Dante [Starks] at Legends [bar] and stuff like that.
Q. So he would tell you he was going to meet with Ed Brown?
Q. When he would come back from his meetings, he tended to have cash?
A. He had cash in an envelope.
Q. Before he went to those meetings, he didn’t have cash, he was broke?
A. He had no money. He was broke.