South Florida

Ethics issue in Opa-locka: Was city attorney’s undisclosed work for city manager OK?

Opa-locka City Attorney Vincent Brown arrives at City Hall during a raid by the FBI on March 10, 2016.
Opa-locka City Attorney Vincent Brown arrives at City Hall during a raid by the FBI on March 10, 2016. wmichot@miamiherald.com

Just days after she was hired as Opa-locka’s city manager last August, Yvette Harrell retained City Attorney Vincent Brown to represent her in a personal lawsuit in which she was sued for failing to pay thousands of dollars in credit-card debt.

Neither Harrell nor Brown disclosed his representation of her in that case in Miami-Dade County Court. Harrell lost the suit by default for not showing up for a critical hearing on a debt-collection agency’s $4,281 claim against her. It stemmed from outstanding charges on her Citibank/Best Buy credit card. Harrell is now challenging the judgment.

Brown’s role in the litigation raises a fundamental question: Does an ethical issue arise when the city attorney represents the city manager in a personal lawsuit?

Brown, who makes $19,800 a month advising Opa-locka’s government on legal matters, refused to answer calls and emails for comment. His attorney, Herman J. Russomanno III — whose father is a former president of the Florida Bar — said his client had “no conflict of interest” because the city manager’s suit over her credit-card debt was “unrelated” to Opa-locka government. He declined to say whether Brown was paid for his legal services by Harrell.

How corruption and mismanagement pushed Opa-locka to the edge of insolvency.

A Miami lawyer who specializes in representing lawyers and judges agreed with Russomanno regarding the potential conflict. But attorney Andrew Berman said that, in light of the fact that Opa-locka’s government has been the focus of an FBI corruption investigation, Brown should have disclosed his representation of the city manager to the city commission. In 2015, the commission hired Brown for the city attorney’s position.

“Given the fact that so many people have been arrested [in that investigation], it would would have been prudent and loyal for him to disclose to the city his private representation of the city manager,” Berman told the Miami Herald. “As a matter of loyalty, he should have done that. It was careless, for sure.”

In 2008, Brown received a public reprimand from the Florida Supreme Court for “professional misconduct.” Last year, he was cleared by the Florida Bar after he issued an email blast to all Opa-locka employees with the names of 20 witnesses in the FBI corruption investigation who received grand jury subpoenas. He said it was accidental.

Over the past year, three senior Opa-locka officials and the mayor’s son have pleaded guilty to shaking down local business owners for thousands of dollars in exchange for licenses. Among those officials: former City Manager David Chiverton, who hired Harrell, as an assistant manager in early 2016. Harrell, a lawyer, was previously working as Brown’s deputy city attorney.

The city of Opa-locka spent nearly $1.7 million in deposits belonging to water customers. Among those denied their money: Luis Perez, who also says the assistant public works director threatened to have him jailed.

After Chiverton’s arrest in early August, Harrell was promoted to city manager by the city commission. By mid-August, she hired Brown to defend her in the personal credit-card dispute in county court.

Neither Harrell nor Brown would say whether she paid him for his legal services or received them for free. If Brown did not charge her, then his services would constitute a gift in excess of $100 and would have to be disclosed. According to the Opa-locka city clerk’s office, Harrell has not filed a quarterly gift disclosure form since becoming city manager.

The issue of Harrell’s credit-card debt problems and Brown’s representation were uncovered this week in a related story. The Miami Herald reported that Harrell ordered the city’s finance director to issue her a check for $5,908 as part of her resignation agreement without securing the required approval of a state board overseeing the city’s financial emergency.

Harrell demanded part of her retroactive pay based on a raise she got in October without the necessary approval of the state oversight board appointed by Gov. Rick Scott almost a year ago.

Although Harrell received the check last week, she said she has not yet cashed it.

Harrell, who makes $125,000 a year, submitted her formal resignation May 10. However, her “separation agreement,” which includes retroactive pay and other benefits, does not take effect until she is replaced, according to the terms. The city commission plans to pick her successor this summer.

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