South Florida

State’s chief inspector general overseeing Opa-locka’s financial crisis resigns

Melinda Miguel
Melinda Miguel Miami Herald file photo

Chief Inspector General Melinda Miguel, the top investigator for two governors who has been accused of suppressing whistleblowers at the state’s prison agency and most recently was assigned the task of sorting through the financial troubles in Opa-locka, has resigned her post saying she “wanted to leave on my terms.”

In an exclusive interview with the Miami Herald late Monday, she said she wanted to leave before the arrival of a new governor and before legislation advances that adds new powers to her office. Miguel’s letter of resignation to the governor was dated April 4 but not announced by the governor’s office until nearly two weeks later.

“It’s been an honor to serve in this position and serve two governors. I’m tired, to be honest,” said Miguel, 53, who was first appointed chief inspector general by former Gov. Charlie Crist and then reappointed by Gov. Rick Scott.

Although her tenure under Scott was challenged by his aggressive former general counsel, Pete Antonacci, who asked her to delay the release of a prison report, and she came under fire by Opa-locka Mayor Myra Taylor and other commissioners, Miguel said the governor never interfered with her investigations.

“I had a tremendous amount of independence, and he never stood in my way,” she said.

Since June, Miguel has chaired the nine-member Opa-locka Financial Emergency Board appointed by the governor due to millions of dollars in government debt in the city, but the relationship was strained and often hostile, as the the city’s mayor criticized Miguel almost from the start.

“The city is not going to operate as usual,” Miguel told commissioners in a July conference call from Tallahassee. She warned of “drastic cuts” as the city was “teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.”

READ MORE: “Governor declares financial emergency in Opa-locka”

Neither the press release announcing her resignation late Monday, nor Miguel’s resignation letter, mentioned her role as chair of the oversight board. Miguel said that the decisions about the city’s future will be handled by the governor’s office.

On Monday the governor announced that Eric Miller, the current inspector general of the Florida Agency of Health Care Administration, would replace Miguel. His assignment takes effect Friday. It is unclear whether Miller, who has worked for state government since 1993, would replace her as chairman of the board overseeing Opa-locka.

“We will assess the duties that the governor wants the new inspector general to do upon his start date,” said McKinley Lewis, spokesman for Gov. Scott’s office.

The oversight board has offered professional advice but no funds to the city, which has struggled to balance a budget this year and is still burdened with about $14 million in debt — about half owed to Miami-Dade County mostly for water and sewer services. Miguel and other board members were met with constant resistance and sometimes hostility by the mayor and other commission members, including accusations of racism and rudeness.

But several Opa-locka residents who have sided with the board’s members over the city’s politicians expressed disappointment over Miguel’s resignation.

“I was heartbroken,” said Natasha Ervin, a longtime community activist. “She was genuine with the way she felt about Opa-locka and helping the residents. I wish the governor would show the same commitment and come to our city. We want him to see what’s going on here.”

READ MORE: “Opa-locka turned public utility into extortion racket.”

Under its agreement with the state, the city commission must approve a budget — with the board holding the authority to make changes — or face serious consequences, including the possible dissolution of Opa-locka’s government. According to that agreement, “the city shall include the changes directed by the governor” and “the city shall accept the response of the governor.”

The oversight board’s intervention in Opa-locka came while the city’s government was already under an FBI investigation into corruption. Over the past year, a former city commissioner, city manager and public works supervisor as well as one of the mayor’s son pleaded guilty to shaking down local business owners who needed operating licenses and water connections. An indictment charging others is expected later this year.

Miguel’s resignation follows a recent decision by former Miami-Dade County manager Merrett Stierheim to step down as a key adviser to the oversight board. Stierheim, a widely respected administrator who has played the role of a trouble-shooting manager in various Miami-Dade cities as well as the local school board, completed an overall assessment of Opa-locka’s government and finances that painted a bleak picture.

Stierheim, who brought in county employees to operate Opa-locka’s billing for water and sewer services, said in late March that the challenge of turning around the city was “by far the worst case” in his long career.

Miller also has been heading up a task force looking into state contracts with private prisons after state Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, revealed inflated pricing and phantom savings in programs that were supposed to be saving the state money, Miguel said.

During Miguel’s tenure as the governor’s top troubleshooter, she was accused by whistleblowers working for the Florida Department of Corrections of failing to aggressively investigate the gruesome deaths of Randall Jordan-Aparo at Franklin Correctional Institution in 2010 and Darren Rainey at Dade Correctional in 2012.

After years of litigation and discovery, the state in November agreed to settle a retaliation lawsuit brought by the four whistleblowers and pay them $800,000.

The prison agency also agreed to end lawsuits by three other department whistleblowers, closing a chapter in what has been one of the most tumultuous eras in state prison history.

Miguel, who began her career in state government in the inspector general’s office in 1993 under then-Gov. Lawton Chiles, said she is confident the investigations into the private prison contracts are in good hands with her successor.

“We will not miss a beat,” she said.

She was the first inspector general at the Department of Elder Affairs, and worked at the Department of Education and Office of Attorney General under Crist before becoming chief inspector general.

She said her next plans are to focus on establishing a consulting business that works with struggling communities like Opa-locka.

“I saw families that were hurting and the public trust was violated on such a grand scale and I want to do something to help give them some hope,” she said. Because of ethical restraints, she said she will not be returning to work with Opa-locka but work on assisting other communities in reform from within.

Jay Weaver: 305-376-3446, @jayhweaver, Mary Ellen and @MaryEllenKlas