South Florida

Opa-locka fixer Dante Starks pleads guilty, may implicate top politicians

Dante Starks pleaded guilty June 25, 2018, in Opa-locka’s corruption scandal.  On Nov. 14, he was sent to prison for five years for running a ‘shadow government’ of shaking down business owners and contractors in the city.
Dante Starks pleaded guilty June 25, 2018, in Opa-locka’s corruption scandal. On Nov. 14, he was sent to prison for five years for running a ‘shadow government’ of shaking down business owners and contractors in the city. Miami Herald file photo

Dante Starks, a former cop, political aide and lobbyist known for making secret deals throughout his career in Miami-Dade, may have cut the biggest deal of his life on Monday.

Starks, 55, agreed to plead guilty to a bribery and extortion conspiracy along with failing to file a tax return, all in a bid to limit his possible prison sentence to six years in the FBI's long-running corruption investigation of Opa-locka City Hall. But Starks is expected to get much less time if he can deliver other targets of the probe, including elected officials.

Starks once wielded so much political power behind the scenes in Opa-locka that he was known as the "shadow mayor," who for a price could deliver commission votes for multimillion-dollar contracts and resolve disputes over building permits, zoning licenses and water connections.

As part of his plea agreement, Starks promised to provide inside information on bribery payments from his extortion racket with several now-convicted city officials, employees and contractors, including testimony before the federal grand jury if requested by the U.S. Attorney's Office. He must also pay the government tens of thousands of dollars in restitution and back taxes for his unreported personal income between 2014 and 2016.

After federal prosecutor Edward Stamm read an unusually long 14-page statement highlighting Starks' various shakedowns of Opa-locka business and property owners, U.S. District Judge Jose Martinez asked the one-time power broker, "Is it true?"

"Yes, your honor," Starks replied.

By flipping for the feds, Starks avoided the risk of going to trial and being convicted of an initial extortion conspiracy that carried up to 20 years in prison. Starks, represented by defense attorney David Howard, quickly shifted from a not guilty plea at the beginning of the month to a guilty plea on Monday.

A former Miami-Dade police officer who once worked as chief of staff for a Miami-Dade County commissioner, Starks later became an everyday fixture as an unregistered lobbyist in Opa-locka. His manipulation of local politics would end in March 2016 when FBI agents raided city hall and hauled away records to build their corruption probe against a city commissioner, a city manager, a public works manager, the mayor's son and two towing contractors.

Luis Santiago, former city commissioner in Opa-locka, is now a convicted felon. MIami Herald file photo

All were convicted over the past two years. But it was former Commissioner Luis Santiago who helped the feds make the criminal case against Starks possible. Santiago lost his 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 that spanned his entire four-year term. The commissioner, who surrendered to FBI agents soon after the November 2016 election on a bribery conspiracy charge, is the only politician to be convicted so far.

But it was apparent at Monday's plea hearing that it is now Starks' turn to talk with the FBI. In the lobby outside the courtroom, he was seen chatting with four agents; afterward, he went into a private room outside the courtroom to share information with the agents and Stamm, the prosecutor.

Residents in Opa-locka, who have grown hopeful with each passing conviction of a corrupt defendant, said Starks' cooperation with the feds is an encouraging sign.

"Hopefully, everyone involved will have their day with the justice system and the residents of Opa-locka can continue to heal," said civic activist Natasha Ervin. "Our city has been plagued by people who had their best interests at hand and not the city's."

In April, Starks was implicated in the FBI corruption case — though he was not identified by name at first. An already convicted businessman known as Hialeah’s “junkyard millionaire” and his son, Raul Sosa Sr. and Raul Sosa Jr., were charged with paying bribes to Santiago, the former commissioner, 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 Santiago and the lobbyist, Starks, who was arrested days later. The bribery arrangement was organized in a meeting between the Sosas, Santiago and Starks soon after the city sought bids from towing contractors, prosecutors said.

Stamm, who is leading the probe, noted that Starks 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 official on the ranking committee was former Public Works supervisor Gregory Harris, who pleaded guilty to an unrelated extortion charge in 2016 and received probation.

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 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 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.

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 Harris, who received a three-year probationary sentence; and Demetrius Corleon Taylor, the son of Mayor Myra Taylor. The son was sentenced to 10 months.