Before Opa-locka Mayor Myra Taylor could even park her red Ford Taurus in a designated parking spot in front of City Hall, three federal agents’ cars were already waiting for her.
Sheer panic crossed her face, though FBI agents just wanted to talk with her.
One hour after Opa-locka’s government opened for business on Thursday morning, dozens of agents descended on City Hall to question the mayor and other local officials as they carried out a search warrant in a corruption probe zeroing in on suspected kickback schemes with local contractors.
Agents carted away hundreds of boxes containing official records, computers and other evidence. And they set city employees on edge after scouring the four-story building, including the offices of the mayor, city manager, public works director and information technology director. They also entered the police detective offices at City Hall and ordered all of the detectives into the hallway area during the search.
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No arrests were made, according to FBI special agent Mike Leverock.
A throng of residents gathered outside City Hall as federal agents stood guard at the entrance, praising the feds for blowing the lid off Opa-locka’s government. “They’re going down,” the crowd shouted.
“It's time for them to take back Opa-locka,” said longtime resident and community activist Chris Roberts . “It's just the beginning. They got to clean house.”
“Yeah, baby! Yeah, baby! Shut it down,” said Alvin Burke. “They have been hurting the city for years. Now I feel like the citizens in this city will finally get some justice.”
Lupe Rivera, a state employee who works across from City Hall, said the scene looked “like a movie,” as she pointed out the TV news helicopter flying above the area. “I've never seen so many FBI agents.”
The FBI’s Leverock said the search warrant was carried out by the agency’s Miami Area Corruption Task Force, which includes investigators from the Miami Police Department and other local law enforcement agencies. He also said the probable cause for the warrant would not be disclosed.
The FBI’s search at City Hall, at 780 Fisherman St., follows a two-year investigation into allegations of kickback schemes between government contractors and public officials in Opa-locka, according to law enforcement sources familiar with the case. The crackdown comes at a time when Opa-locka, one of Miami-Dade County’s poorest cities, has been struggling with a financial crisis stemming from millions of dollars in uncollected revenue and mismanagement. On Wednesday, the city commission hired the law firm Genovese Joblove & Battista to assist in restructuring Opa-locka’s debt.
The evidence gathered at City Hall — a modern building that has replaced Opa-locka’s decaying Moorish-themed government center a few blocks away — will now be evaluated by FBI agents to firm up the strongest parts of their corruption case. It is also possible that the shock-and-awe effect of the raid might compel certain witnesses and suspects to come forward and begin to cooperate with the FBI and U.S. attorney’s office before arrests are made in the future.
In recent months, the Miami Herald has reported on allegations that Mayor Myra Taylor, and her husband, John Taylor, who is a minister, pressured former City Manager Steve Shiver for money to support the husband’s interest in buying a church in Miami Gardens.
The Herald also reported that Shiver accused a sewer project contractor of trying to shake him down to pay a large outstanding bill in an alleged scheme to divert $150,000 to the mayor and her husband for the church venture. The contractor, George Howard, had previously accused Shiver of soliciting the bribe from him to pay off the mayor.
Shiver’s tenure as city manager in Opa-locka was short-lived. While the mayor and other city commissioners hired him in early September, they turned on him by the end of November after he alerted state officials about Opa-locka’s dire financial problems —including at least $8 million in debt.
After Thursday’s raid, Shiver issued a statement, saying he “can’t go into any specifics on the advice” of his lawyer.
“However, if you recall, before being abruptly terminated as city manager in November of last year, I pointed out several irregularities and things that just didn’t make sense about their financial systems there,” said Shiver, a former Homestead mayor and county manager for Miami-Dade government.
“At this point, I hope and pray that our justice system will rapidly resolve this issue and allow the good citizens, the business owners and the residents of Opa-locka to finally move forward.”
As city manager, Shiver not only highlighted the city’s precarious finances in a letter to Florida Gov. Rick Scott, but he also alluded to a “shadow” government that wields tremendous influence behind the scenes. Without mentioning him by name, Shiver was referring to a longtime government consultant and lobbyist, Dante Starks, who is close to the Opa-locka mayor and Commissioners Terence Pinder and Luis Santiago. Last year, Starks was retained by the city’s garbage contractor, Universal Waste Services, whose contract expires in the fall.
On Thursday morning, Starks was spotted exiting City Hall and heading for the rear parking lot when FBI agents began their search.
By early afternoon, Commissioner Joseph Kelley had arrived. A few concerned citizens dashed to his car to disclose the news to him.
“It's disheartening. Anytime something like this occur it's not something to be happy about,” Kelley said. “I just hope that whatever is taking place, good will prevail.”
Soon after, Opa-locka Vice Mayor Timothy Holmes rolled up, commenting to the swarm of reporters that he had not spoken to the mayor since the city commission meeting the previous night.
“If anyone in my government is doing something illegal, bust them,” Holmes said. “I haven't done anything illegal. We'll see what happens.”