For helping the FBI in a long-running corruption probe of Opa-locka City Hall, former public works manager Gregory Harris got a lenient punishment — probation — after he pleaded guilty to taking a $300 bribe from a local businessman who needed a water connection.
Two weeks later, the disgraced former official received another break, this time in the form of a check: $31,789 from the city for unused sick and vacation time that he had accumulated during his nearly 10-year government career with Opa-locka.
Members of a state board overseeing the debt-ridden city are questioning why Harris got his payout while others who are owed money but have not stolen anything or been convicted of a crime must wait months or even years for their bills to be covered.
Harris’ payment was included in a list of 13 other city employees who accrued similar benefits before resigning or getting laid off during the past year. The check was issued March 21.
A similar payment a year ago to outgoing City Manager David Chiverton, who would later be sentenced to prison on corruption charges, stirred similar anger. That payment, which Chiverton himself engineered, was revealed by the Miami Herald.
The local board chairman, Frank Rollason, told Opa-locka officials that he was upset the city did not call attention to Harris’ name on what seemed otherwise to be a routine list of payouts.
In an exchange of emails with City Manager Yvette Harrell and others that were sprinkled with exclamation points, Rollason expressed outrage over the decision to pay Harris, saying ‘I just cannot fathom what goes through the minds of those in charge!’
The name appeared on a spreadsheet with the other eligible employees, which was included in a package of backup materials for board members to review on March 7 as they signed off on a long list of city contractors and vendors owed money for past services. The line-item for Harris included gross pay of $23,432 for unused vacation time and $14,742 for accrued sick time.
In a recent exchange of emails with City Manager Yvette Harrell and others that were sprinkled with exclamation points, Rollason expressed outrage over her decision to pay Harris, saying “I just cannot fathom what goes through the minds of those in charge!”
Harrell defended the payment to Harris, saying “I won’t debate this with you.”
Rollason retorted: “Yvette, it is not a debate — it is common sense!”
Rollason added it is “not a question of whether or not [Harris] is legally owed — of course he is, but why should he be placed ahead of all the others who have not stolen a dime from the city?”
“Someone could have said to me as I reviewed the payouts that, by the way, a payout to Gregory Harris is on this list, you know, the guy who was involved in criminal activity against the city!”
Rollason, manager of North Bay Village, and select other board members review the city’s outstanding bills every month, before the full board approves or rejects them. Rollason told the Herald he was “incredulous” that Harrell and other local officials did not bring Harris’ name to the panel’s attention, as though they were trying to “slip it by” board members.
“If they had done that, I would have stopped the payment immediately,” he said in an interview Monday. “He could have gotten in the back of the line behind hundreds of others who are owed money by the city.”
Harris, who resigned from his $87,500-a-year position as assistant director of public works shortly before he was arrested and charged with bribery in August, said he did not understand why Rollason was so upset about his payout for personnel benefits legally owed to him.
“I was a regular employee just like anyone else who worked for the city and received money for [unused] sick and vacation time,” Harris, 51, told the Herald Tuesday. “I left the city unscathed. When I resigned, there was nothing in my personnel file.
“As a citizen, I did get arrested,” he said. “I did confess and I want to move on with my life. I should not have been singled out for anything. I didn’t steal anything. The money [benefit] was owed to me.”
In late August, Harris pleaded guilty to a bribery conspiracy charge. In 2015, Harris met with a local businessman-turned-FBI informant and “accepted a $300 cash payment in exchange for having the water service turned back on” at his property, according to a statement filed with his plea agreement. “After accepting the $300 payment, Harris directed two Opa-locka employees to turn the water back on” at his business.
In March, Harris was spared prison and sentenced to three years of probation and 600 hours of community service by a Miami federal judge because prosecutors said he provided “substantial assistance” to the FBI and U.S. attorney’s office in the 4-year-old extortion investigation in Opa-locka.
At the sentencing, a prosecutor said Harris’ supporting role ‘stands in stark contrast’ to that of two high-profile, convicted officials with whom he conspired.
At the sentencing, a prosecutor said Harris’ supporting role “stands in stark contrast” to that of two high-profile, convicted officials with whom he conspired: former Chiverton, 51, who was sentenced to three years in prison, and former City Commissioner Luis Santiago, 55, who is facing harsher punishment but is now cooperating with authorities in the hope of lowering his sentence.
A year ago — just days after Chiverton was identified by FBI informants in a Herald story as a suspect in the corruption investigation — the then-city manager approved two payments totaling nearly $40,000 to himself in what were violations of the city’s policies for employees. Like Harris, Chiverton cashed in benefits for unused vacation and sick time, but he did so before he left the employment of the city, in violation of its personnel rules.
One payment for $14,160 was for unused vacation time, and the second for $24,982 was for sick time. While Chiverton was receiving the payments, the city was struggling to cut costs by reducing the work week for most employees to 32 hours and refusing to pay contractors and vendors hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Last year, the Herald published a series of stories detailing how Chiverton and other top officials shook down business owners who were working undercover for the FBI in various backroom bribes recorded on video. The businessmen paid out thousands of dollars in bribes to obtain routine operating licenses and water connections. The investigation is among the largest corruption probes in South Florida history.