When longtime Opa-locka Commissioner Joseph Kelley attended Wednesday’s commission meeting, he says he had every intention of bringing up the sorest subject in the city: allegations that City Manager David Chiverton shook down a business owner who needed a $150 license for his heavy-equipment company.
But Kelley never followed through on his promise, saying afterward that City Attorney Vincent Brown told him “it was best not to bring it up.”
“I was concerned [about the allegations] because I love my city,” Kelley told reporters after the commission meeting at the Sherbondy Village Community Center.
But Brown, who was hired by the City Commission more than a year ago, told the Miami Herald that Kelley approached him for his opinion. “I told him, ‘You’re free to do whatever you want. It’s your call.’ ”
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“I don’t want anyone to be silent about an issue that is painful to the city,” Brown added. “My job is to provide legal advice to the city.”
Chiverton, appointed as city manager in late March, was spotlighted in a Herald story on Sunday that exposed how the business owner, Frank Zambrana, got so infuriated with repeated shakedowns for his license that he went to the FBI, agreed to wear a wire and recorded paying thousands of dollars in bribes to Chiverton, Commissioner Luis Santiago, lobbyist Dante Starks and Mayor Myra Taylor’s son, Corleon.
Despite the news account, the issue was never raised during Wednesday night’s two-hour commission meeting — not even by the 50 or so residents in attendance. Commissioner Timothy Holmes spoke generally about the FBI’s investigation into corruption at City Hall, but avoided specifics. His colleague Santiago and Mayor Taylor praised Chiverton for the “good job” he was doing during the city government’s struggle to recover from a severe financial crisis.
At one point, the mayor declared: “Things are coming out in the newspaper that are not necessarily true. ... We are in recovery mode. ... All of this might be a ploy to get us off track.”
In one of the most compelling public corruption cases in Miami-Dade in years, Zambrana taped secret meetings while he paid cash bribes to public officials in City Hall, at remote parking lots and even in a popular night spot, according to confidential sources.
Zambrana is among the lead figures in a grand jury investigation that could result in the indictment of at least a dozen people, including Chiverton, Santiago and Starks, on racketeering charges, according to sources who spoke to the Herald on the condition of anonymity.
Chiverton, 51, who previously worked as assistant city manager, declined to comment about the alleged under-the-table cash payments by Zambrana — almost all of which were recorded by him at the direction of the FBI. Zambrana started cooperating with federal agents in 2013 as he was struggling to open his business, Rhino Parts & Equipment Inc., in an industrial area off Northwest 27th Avenue.
After Wednesday’s meeting, Chiverton said: “I don’t do shakedowns.” But he refused to respond specifically to Zambrana’s allegations in the Herald story.
Santiago, afterward, blurted out to a reporter: “I’m innocent.”
Zambrana told the Herald how he was repeatedly threatened by a city code enforcement officer before Chiverton, Santiago, Starks and Corleon Taylor shook him down for nearly $30,000 over a year and a half. Zambrana, a father of five, ultimately received his business license in January 2015, but by then he had decided to leave Opa-locka because of the ordeal’s toll on his life. While he was working with the FBI, Zambrana and his wife were caring for an ailing teenage son, Andy, who died of cancer in February.
In addition to code enforcement threats, Zambrana told the Herald that Public Works Director Gregory Harris cut off the water connection to his business and only agreed to reconnect the line after Zambrana paid him $250 in cash. Zambrana said Harris did this to other business owners in Opa-locka, too.
Before Wednesday’s meeting, Kelley said he had planned to bring up questions about the alleged payoffs to Chiverton, who makes $125,000 a year as city manager.
“I feel he has to be accountable for his actions,” Kelley said.
In an interview, a community leader shared that sentiment.
“Santiago, Chiverton and Harris should all step down until the FBI investigation is over,” said Steven Barrett, a former Opa-locka vice mayor. “This community has been hurt bad enough. If they had any respect for this community, they should step down. If it turns out they are cleared, then they can be reinstated.”
So pervasive were the underhanded methods at City Hall that other Opa-locka business owners, outraged over being extorted, joined Zambrana and became informants for the FBI, three of those witnesses told the Herald.
Before joining Opa-locka’s government three years ago, Chiverton previously worked for nonprofit community service agencies, ran a Miami-Dade weed-and-seed program, and once ran for a seat on the Miami City Commission.
His tenure as a senior Opa-locka official has coincided with the city’s descent into deep debt, fueled by uncollected water and sewer bills, declining property values and economic stagnation. The city owes at least $4 million to Miami-Dade County government and millions more to vendors who have provided other services, according to public records.
After Wednesday’s meeting, Chiverton said: “I don’t do shakedowns.” But he refused to respond specifically to Zambrana’s allegations in the Herald story. Santiago, afterward, blurted out to a reporter: “I’m innocent.”
Chiverton took over as interim city manager in late November, when the city commission voted to fire Steve Shiver, who had been on the job for just three months. Shiver, a former Homestead mayor and county manager, blew the whistle on the city’s potential financial emergency when he contacted Gov. Rick Scott’s office last fall.
Accusing him of disloyalty, Mayor Taylor led the charge to remove Shiver. But the state’s scrutiny of Opa-locka’s financial troubles has only intensified in recent weeks. On Wednesday, Chiverton told the commissioners that he planned to send the governor’s chief inspector general, Melinda Miguel, a batch of financial records and other documents for the state’s inquiry.