Plundering a small town
A former Miami-Dade cop who wielded such powerful influence in Opa-locka government that he was considered a "shadow mayor" stood diminished before a federal judge on Friday after his arrest in the long-running FBI corruption investigation at City Hall.
Dante Starks, a lobbyist with close ties to Mayor Myra Taylor and other local politicians in the struggling minority community, was charged with shaking down business people and pocketing bribes in a conspiracy case that has already resulted in the convictions of a former city commissioner who turned on Starks, as well as other senior Opa-locka officials and the mayor's son.
Starks, who was paid tens of thousands of dollars as a lobbyist for construction companies, real estate developers and other contractors that did business with the city, also failed to file income tax returns in 2014, 2015 and 2016, according to an indictment.
"Political power and influence must not be bought or sold," U.S. Attorney Benjamin Greenberg said in a statement.
On Friday, Starks was granted a $100,000 bond by Magistrate Judge Janet McAliley in an agreement with prosecutors. His defense attorney, David Howard, declined to comment. His arraignment was set for April 30.
The dawn arrest of the 55-year-old power broker was foreshadowed in early April when a Hialeah towing contractor and his son were charged with paying $10,000 in bribes to Starks and now-convicted commissioner Luis Santiago, who has cooperated with the FBI and federal prosecutors since his plea agreement was struck last year.
Santiago lost his commission seat after a series of Miami Herald stories reported that he was the main target of the probe of an extortion scheme involving payoffs for official favors that spanned his entire four-year term. The commissioner, who surrendered to FBI agents soon after the November 2016 election on a bribery conspiracy charge, is the only politician to be convicted so far.
Community activists rejoiced over news of his arrest early Friday on extortion, bribery and conspiracy charges, which spread quickly through the northwest Miami-Dade city. There are heightened expectations that other political targets of the investigation will be charged later this year.
"Dante Starks has been raping the city of Opa-locka for a long time for the benefit of himself and others," said Steven Barrett, a former vice mayor who along with other community leaders has pushed the feds to clean up city hall. "I think his arrest is a sign that others are going to go down soon. They got the head. It's just a matter of time before they get the tail."
Added community activist Natasha Ervin: "The walls are falling down. This is the beginning of the end of all the corruption in Opa-locka." Starks, a self-styled lobbyist who has reaped hundreds of thousands of dollars while steering mainly public works contracts to clients in Opa-locka, has left a trail of trouble for more than decade.
Starks resolved an earlier state corruption case in 2014 that accused him of paying bribes to a city commissioner. Starks and former Opa-locka Vice Mayor Terence Pinder accepted plea deals with probationary sentences from the MIami-Dade State Attorney's Office in a case dating back to 2007. Both pleaded no contest to four counts of conflict of interest while the rest of the charges — including racketeering and unlawful compensation — were dropped.
Since then, Starks drew the attention of federal agents for even more dealings with city contractors and business people who needed zoning permits, water hook-ups and other services in Opa-locka. Among the allegations: Starks collaborated with Santiago and two other city officials in extortion and bribery schemes. Starks also is accused of receiving and paying out thousands of dollars in bribes to those officials while they were captured on secret audio recordings and videos, according to informants who worked undercover for the FBI.
So powerful was Starks over the years that he flouted local laws by failing to register as a lobbyist — until late 2015 — while representing businesses with multimillion-dollar government contracts in the impoverished city. He has also raised thousands of dollars for political campaigns to help commissioners get elected.
Two weeks ago, Starks was implicated in the latest development in the FBI corruption case — though he was not identified by name. An already convicted businessman known as Hialeah’s “junkyard millionaire” and his son, Raul Sosa Sr. and Raul Sosa Jr., were charged with paying bribes to Santiago, the former commissioner, and a city lobbyist to obtain a towing contract.
Raul Sosa Sr. and Raul Sosa Jr. were charged with paying $10,000 in 2015 to Santiago and the lobbyist, who was not identified in the indictment. The lobbyist was Starks, according to several sources in law enforcement and in Opa-locka. The bribery arrangement was organized in a meeting between the Sosas, Santiago and the unnamed lobbyist soon after the city sought bids from towing contractors that April, prosecutors said.
“During this meeting, Sosa Sr. paid the first installment of the bribe and designated his son, Sosa Jr., as the person who would work with Santiago and the co-conspirator to carry out the illegal arrangement,” prosecutors said in a statement.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ed Stamm, who is leading the probe, noted that the co-conspirator violated the “cone of silence” by asking a city employee to prepare Sosa Sr.’s bid and by contacting the city’s ranking committee to ensure his towing company would be listed first among the bidders. The co-conspirator was Starks; the official on the ranking committee was former Public Works supervisor Gregory Harris, who pleaded guilty to an unrelated extortion charge in 2016 and received probation.
Two years ago, Raul Sosa Sr. and his wife, Maura, went to prison for tax evasion because of their failure to report millions of dollars in income from his Hialeah tow-truck and scrap-metal business. The company, Accion 1 Auto Sales, raked in almost $29 million in revenue from 2004-08, but the Sosas were hiding much of that income from the federal government by reporting only a fraction of their actual sales during the five-year period.
The Sosas, convicted at trial of defrauding the Internal Revenue Service for failing to report at least $4.5 million in business profits, were sentenced to prison terms of 6 1/2 and four years, respectively. The couple, who formerly lived in Miami Springs, owed $1.5 million in federal income taxes.
The Sosa connection to the Opa-locka corruption probe was through Santiago. In February, Santiago was sentenced to more than four years in prison after providing inside information to authorities about Starks and other targets of the probe, including Sosa and his son.
Last year, Santiago admitted accepting tens of thousands of dollars in bribes from local businessmen in need of permits, and sharing that cash with other Opa-locka officials, including a former city manager now imprisoned.
The businessmen were actually working undercover for the FBI and recording the payoffs. Santiago’s sentencing was initially set for last March, but he cut a plea deal on a single bribery conspiracy charge and ever since has secretly helped federal agents and the U.S. attorney’s office build their investigation against Starks and others. Santiago, 56, could eventually get less time in prison if federal prosecutors recommend a reduction for “substantial assistance” in the corruption investigation.
District Judge Kathleen Williams imposed a 51-month sentence. Santiago, who was elected to the commission in 2012 but was defeated four years later, admitted in his guilty plea early last year that he plotted with other top officials and employees to pocket up to $40,000 in bribes in a scheme that shook down several local business owners and corrupted nearly every level of the city’s financially troubled government.
Santiago must surrender the bribes he took from the undercover businessmen. Santiago was the fourth defendant to plead guilty in the FBI probe of Opa-locka City Hall corruption. The other three defendants who have pleaded guilty in the Opa-locka case are former City Manager David Chiverton, who was sentenced to three years in prison; ex-Public Works supervisor Gregory Harris, who received a three-year probationary sentence; and Demetrius Corleon Taylor, the son of Mayor Taylor. The son was sentenced to 10 months.