South Florida

Opa-locka politician pleads guilty to bribery, as FBI continues corruption probe

Former Opa Locka commissioner Santiago leaves federal court

Luis Santiago, former commissioner for the City of Opa-Locka, exits the Federal Courthouse in Miami after surrendering to bribery charges. He pleaded 'Not Guilty' and was released after posting $50,000 surety bond on Friday, December 30, 2016. His
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Luis Santiago, former commissioner for the City of Opa-Locka, exits the Federal Courthouse in Miami after surrendering to bribery charges. He pleaded 'Not Guilty' and was released after posting $50,000 surety bond on Friday, December 30, 2016. His

Former Opa-locka Commissioner Luis Santiago admitted Tuesday 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.

In an effort to reduce his prison time, Santiago pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiring to accept multiple bribes and extort businesses seeking city licenses, water connections and zoning permits — an offense that will likely put him behind bars for more than three years under a plea agreement.

Santiago, 55, who otherwise would have faced up to five years under the bribery law, acknowledged to a Miami federal judge that he wanted to accept responsibility for his crime.

“I think that’s the best way to go,” said Santiago, who was flanked by his defense attorney, Roderick Vereen.

Santiago, the fourth defendant to plead guilty in the still-widening FBI probe of Opa-locka City Hall corruption, will be sentenced by U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams on March 30. Santiago, who remains free on bail until then, is not assisting authorities in the investigation.

Santiago lost his city commission seat in November after a series of Miami Herald stories reported that he was the main target of the probe of an alleged extortion scheme involving payoffs for official favors. The one-term commissioner, who surrendered to FBI agents in late December on the bribery charge, is the only politician to be convicted so far.

In exchange for illegal payments, Santiago directed Chiverton, Harris, and other Opa-locka employees to assist local businessmen by issuing occupational licenses, settling code enforcement liens, restoring water service and handling zoning matters, according to the charging document.

“Today in open court, a former City Commissioner admitted that he betrayed the trust placed in him by the people of Opa Locka by abusing his authority to demand and obtain bribes from local individuals and businesses,” U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer said in a statement. “This type of public corruption by an elected official erodes the crucial bond between our public institutions and the communities that they serve.”

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 will be sentenced in March; and Demetrius Corleon Taylor, the son of Opa-locka Mayor Myra Taylor, who will be sentenced later this month.

Their convictions coincide with serious financial troubles in Opa-locka, one of the poorest cities in Miami-Dade County. Since June, the city has been under the control of a state oversight board that must approve all spending by the five-member commission because of a financial emergency. The commission has still not passed a budget for the current fiscal year, which began on Oct. 1, but is expected to finalize the spending plan this month if the oversight board approves it.

Santiago, perhaps best known around Opa-locka for sponsoring bingo nights and raising money for the city’s Fourth of July celebration, was once an influential member of the commission because of his alliance with Mayor Taylor.

Santiago’s political loss to a reform-minded newcomer, coupled with his conviction in the long-running federal case, has given some hope to a community weary of corruption and mismanagement at City Hall.

Some residents found it offensive that Santiago, after being charged with accepting bribes, said he was “going to keep serving” his community.

“I think I’m speaking for most of our residents ... we don’t want his kind of help in our community,” said Natasha Ervin, who has lived in Opa-locka since the 1970s and launched a group last year calling for honest government. “We thought we showed him that we no longer wanted his help when we voted him out of office.”

Santiago, who repairs and sells cars for a living, is accused of extorting five local businesses for thousands of dollars in exchange for helping them obtain permits, licenses and water connections between March 2014 and March 2016, when federal agents raided City Hall.

Prosecutors said Santiago directed city officials to shake down those businesses, including three business owners who worked undercover for the FBI and recorded the illicit transactions. Tens of thousands in payoffs were made to Santiago and at least two other officials in parking lots, a City Hall bathroom, a restaurant and the former commissioner’s home, according to prosecutor Edward Stamm, who filed the bribery charge.

I think I’m speaking for most of our residents ... we don’t want his kind of help in our community.

Natasha Ervin, community activist

Here’s how the alleged bribery scheme worked: In exchange for illegal payments, Santiago directed Chiverton, Harris, and other Opa-locka employees to assist local businessmen by issuing occupational licenses, settling code enforcement liens, restoring water service and handling zoning matters, according to the charging document.

“Santiago would make payments to Chiverton, and Santiago also would direct the paying businesses and individuals to make payments to Chiverton in exchange for the official actions taken on their behalf,” according to the document.

Among the FBI informants who paid off Santiago after he extorted them are Frank Zambrana, who operated a heavy equipment business, and Francisco Pujol, who owns a tire recycling operation. Both businessmen detailed to the Herald how Santiago, Chiverton, Harris and Corleon Taylor, who worked for the city’s garbage contractor, pressured them to pay thousands in bribes so they could obtain licenses that officially should have cost hundreds of dollars.

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