A former Miami-Dade cop who turned into a powerful political insider in the struggling community of Opa-locka seemed to be missing in action since FBI agents raided City Hall two years ago.
But Dante Starks, once known for running a “shadow government,” has not entirely vanished — despite being under the spotlight as a suspect in a long-running federal corruption investigation.
Starks, 55, has reinvented himself as the director of security for an always-open strip club called Klub 24 that has operated since mid-January without the required approvals of the Opa-locka City Commission and Planning Council.
The cabaret lounge, complete with leopard-skin bar chairs, chrome stripper poles and flat screen TVs, has become the latest controversy in the troubled city — praised as a bit of economic progress by some but condemned by others offended by its X-rated entertainment.
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Starks, who is close to Mayor Myra Taylor and City Manager Ed Brown, met at Klub 24 with the police chief and a sergeant to discuss off-duty cop details before it opened as a 24/7 strip joint.
“Yes, he was there and represented himself as the director of security for the club,” said Police Chief James Dobson, who along with Sgt. Marcos Gonzalez, discussed with Starks the nightly details. “We met with Starks to discuss the safety and security situation.”
Dobson, who recently gave a deposition in a city lawsuit that confirmed Starks’ role as Klub 24’s security director, said the arrangement allows two police officers to work off duty at $45 an hour. The city gets to keep $5 of that hourly rate.
A former Opa-locka assistant city attorney who took Dobson’s deposition in the suit said he believes the strip club was allowed to open because Starks is still pulling strings at City Hall.
“Nothing has changed,” said lawyer Michael Pizzi, a former Miami Lakes mayor. “They are doing it under the noses of the federal government and state oversight board,” a panel appointed by Gov. Rick Scott that has kept tabs on the city’s shaky finances over the past two years.
Klub 24’s general manager, Giovanni Acajosi, could not be reached for comment about Starks on Tuesday. Starks did not returns calls and messages.
The club occupies a renovated warehouse once occupied by a defunct restaurant called Crabby’s on Opa-locka Boulevard. Operated by South Florida's Booby Trap chain, Klub 24 invested $1.5 million in the makeover.
The club’s representative in the permitting and licensing applications has been Eddie Dean, who is close to Starks. Dean could not be reached for comment.
The club was able to open after obtaining a temporary certificate of occupancy from the city's building director — even though such nightclubs are banned in Opa-locka without a special exception from planning council members and commissioners, according to the city attorney.
On Wednesday night, two commissioners plan to ask the city manager to have the building director shut down the club. But it's up in the air how the other three commissioners, including Mayor Taylor, will vote.
Brown, Opa-locka’s manager, has sparred with the city attorney over the legality of the club and refuses to close the place, saying it would lead to a costly lawsuit.
“To avoid costly litigation and public scrutiny, the city of Opa-locka should move on from this matter and accept responsibility for issuing the license and certificate of use,” Brown wrote earlier this month to the city commissioners.
Starks, a self-styled lobbyist who has reaped hundreds of thousands of dollars while steering contracts to clients in Opa-locka, has left a trail of trouble. He resolved an earlier corruption case in 2014 that accused him of paying bribes to a city commissioner.
Starks and former Opa-locka Vice Mayor Terence Pinder accepted plea deals with probationary sentences from the state in a case dating back to 2007. Both pleaded no contest to four counts of conflict of interest while the rest of the charges — including racketeering and unlawful compensation —were dropped.
Since then, Starks has drawn the attention of federal agents for even more dealings, including alleged bribes paid between him and city commissioners and top administrators who were captured on secret tape recordings and videos, according to informants who worked undercover for the FBI.
So powerful was Starks over the years that he flouted local laws by failing to register as a lobbyist — until late 2015 — while representing businesses with some of the largest government contracts in the impoverished city. He has also raised thousands of dollars for political campaigns to help commissioners get elected.
The controversy over Klub 24 — named for its sleepless operating hours — isn’t about corruption but more mundane city codes and permits. Who messed up at City Hall and what if anything can be done?
Soon after the opening, the city attorney offered his legal opinion, concluding the nightclub “cannot operate an adult entertainment business.” Indeed, no other strip club exists in Opa-locka.
City Attorney Vincent Brown said Opa-locka should never have issued the occupancy certificate.
Brown noted in a memo that Klub 24 “is not permitted to operate an ‘adult entertainment’ business” in the city, stressing it is “specifically prohibited” in the zoning code.
The building director, Daniel Abia, said that city zoning and licensing officials were involved in approving Klub 24’s adult entertainment application before he granted its temporary 90-day occupancy certificate in mid-January. It expires April 20.
Abia said by that deadline, all final building code, fire safety and legislative approvals must be met — or he will shut down the strip club.