South Florida

Hialeah’s ‘junkyard millionaire’ and his son charged in Opa-locka corruption case

Raul Sosa Sr.
Raul Sosa Sr. Miami-Dade Department of Corrections

An already-convicted businessman known as Hialeah’s “junkyard millionaire” and his son were charged Friday with paying bribes to an Opa-locka politician and a city lobbyist to obtain a towing contract.

Raul Sosa Sr. and Raul Sosa Jr. were charged with paying $10,000 in 2015 to former city Commissioner Luis Santiago and the lobbyist, who is not identified in an indictment unsealed Friday. The lobbyist is believed to be Dante Starks, who has not been charged in the long-running FBI corruption investigation at Opa-locka City Hall.

The bribery arrangement was organized in a meeting between the Sosas, Santiago and the unnamed lobbyist soon after the city sought bids from towing contractors that April, prosecutors said.

“During this meeting, Sosa Sr. paid the first installment of the bribe and designated his son, Sosa Jr., as the person who would work with Santiago and the co-conspirator to carry out the illegal arrangement,” prosecutors said in a statement. They also noted that the co-conspirator violated the “cone of silence” by asking a city employee to prepare Sosa Sr.’s bid and by contacting the city’s ranking committee to ensure his towing company would be listed first among the bidders.

The multiple-count indictment against the Sosas is the latest development in the bribery conspiracy probe, and it suggests that Starks could be the next target in the 5-year-old FBI case. Starks, who did not return calls and messages seeking comment, is a former Miami-Dade police officer who earned the reputation of running a “shadow government” in Opa-locka because of his close relationship with the now-convicted commissioner, Santiago, and Mayor Myra Taylor.

On Friday, Sosa Sr.’s son appeared in Miami federal court and was granted a bond, with his arraignment scheduled for April 20. “We intend on pleading not guilty at the arraignment,” his defense attorney, Walter Reynoso, said after Sosa’s appearance.

Luis Santiago, former commissioner for the City of Opa-Locka, exits the Federal Courthouse in Miami after surrendering to bribery charges. He pleaded 'Not Guilty' and was released after posting $50,000 surety bond on Friday, December 30, 2016. His

Sosa’s father did not appear alongside him because he’s in prison on an unrelated criminal conviction.

Two years ago, Raul Sosa Sr. and his wife, Maura, went to prison for tax evasion because of their failure to report millions of dollars in income from his Hialeah tow-truck and scrap-metal business. The company, Accion 1 Auto Sales, raked in almost $29 million in revenue from 2004-08, but the Sosas were hiding much of that income from the federal government by reporting only a fraction of their actual sales during the five-year period.

The Sosas, convicted at trial of defrauding the Internal Revenue Service for failing to report at least $4.5 million in business profits, were sentenced to prison terms of 61/2 and 4 years, respectively. The couple, who formerly lived in Miami Springs, owed $1.5 million in federal income taxes.

The Sosa connection to the Opa-locka corruption probe was through Santiago. In February, Santiago was sentenced to more than four years in prison after providing inside information to authorities about Starks, the influential lobbyist, and other targets of the probe, including Sosa and his son.

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

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

Santiago’s sentencing 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 Starks and others.

Santiago, 56, could eventually get less time in prison if federal prosecutors recommend a reduction for “substantial assistance” in the corruption investigation to U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams, who imposed a 51-month sentence.

Santiago, who was elected to the commission in 2012 but was defeated four years later, admitted in his guilty plea early last year 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.

Santiago was the fourth defendant to plead guilty in the 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 Mayor Taylor, who was sentenced to 10 months.

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