South Florida

Opa-locka politician sentenced to four years after helping feds build corruption probe

Luis Santiago, former commissioner for the city of Opa-Locka, exits the federal courthouse in Miami after surrendering to bribery charges in late 2016 with his defense attorney Roderick Vereen.
Luis Santiago, former commissioner for the city of Opa-Locka, exits the federal courthouse in Miami after surrendering to bribery charges in late 2016 with his defense attorney Roderick Vereen.

Luis Santiago, a former Opa-locka commissioner who pleaded guilty to a bribery charge in a sprawling federal extortion investigation, has been sentenced to more than four years in prison after providing inside information to authorities about an influential lobbyist and other targets of the probe.

A year ago, Santiago admitted accepting tens of thousands of dollars in bribes from local businessmen in need of permits who were working undercover for the FBI, and sharing that cash with other Opa-locka officials, including a former city manager now imprisoned.

Santiago’s sentencing on Thursday 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 lobbyist Dante Starks, who is close to Mayor Myra Taylor. Neither Starks nor the mayor could be reached for comment Friday.

Santiago, 56, could eventually obtain less time in prison if federal prosecutors recommend a reduction for his “substantial assistance” in the corruption probe to U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams, who imposed a 51-month sentence. In a court filing, Assistant U.S. Atttorney Edward Stamm said that “once his cooperation is completed, the government will evaluate it in its entirety and will make a final decision on the matter.”

Santiago’s defense attorney, Roderick Vereen, obtained a delay in his client’s surrender to prison authorities because of his ongoing assistance. The former commissioner is scheduled to start his prison term on Aug. 23.

A longtime Opa-locka activist who has confronted the city’s political leaders throughout the FBI’s five-year corruption probe said Santiago’s sentencing sends an uplifting message to the community.

“This is just the start. The City of Opa-locka is no longer a City for Sale,” Natasha Ervin wrote in an email to the Miami Herald on Friday. “It's now a city that will put you in jail. Our residents deserve so much better. We elect people to make a difference, not to make a profit for themselves.”

Santiago, who was elected to the commission in 2012 but was defeated four years later, admitted in his guilty plea last January 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 pay back the bribes he took from the undercover businessmen. A restitution hearing is set for May 22.

Santiago was the fourth defendant to plead guilty in the long-running FBI probe of Opa-locka City Hall corruption. Santiago lost his city 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. The one-term commissioner, who surrendered to FBI agents in late December 2016 on the bribery charge, is the only politician to be convicted so far.

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 Opa-locka Mayor Myra Taylor, who was sentenced to 10 months.

Their convictions coincided with serious financial troubles in Opa-locka, one of the poorest cities in Miami-Dade County. Since June 2016, 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.

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

Santiago, who repairs and sells cars for a living, was 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 Stamm, the prosecutor who filed the bribery charge.

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 Demetrius 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.

Many of the illicit transactions in the sting operation were recorded by the undercover operators.