South Florida

He once ran a multibillion-dollar government. Now his own finances are in ruins

Steve Shiver in period getup at Ghost Town the Sky. The amusement part went bust and parts of the property slid down the mountain for lack of a retaining wall, damaging homes.
Steve Shiver in period getup at Ghost Town the Sky. The amusement part went bust and parts of the property slid down the mountain for lack of a retaining wall, damaging homes.

His rose gold Rolex has been sold — at a steep discount. The credit cards have been surrendered, the house foreclosed, the car repossessed.

And yet Steve Shiver, who once ran the largest local government in Florida — one of the largest in the nation — is still a big man in political circles.

Shiver, once the Miami-Dade County manager drawing up a multibillion-dollar budget managing more than 30,000 employees, is the executive director of the Police Benevolent Association’s Miami-Dade chapter, which represents more than 6,500 local police officers. The Dade County PBA negotiates with local governments, sometimes convincing them to reach into taxpayers’ pockets to award law enforcement officers a raise.

Every few years, politicians come hat in hand to the police union office on Northwest 25th Street in Doral, looking for the gold standard of endorsements — the PBA imprimatur that allows them to say they have the whole-hearted backing of the cops.

The job has Shiver regularly rubbing shoulders with mayors, senators and governors, despite having stiffed banks, friends and strangers to the tune of millions of dollars.

Once able to take spa trips to Sanibel, ski in the Smokies and dine at Smith & Wollensky, Shiver recently described his epic financial troubles to a bankruptcy trustee. He said he lives off the largess of relatives and friends and deals almost exclusively in cash because his credit cards are gone. He described a series of financial debacles, including the literal and figurative collapse of a mountain-top amusement park called Ghost Town in the Sky, which saw a considerable chunk of its land slide down the mountain for lack of a retaining barrier, damaging houses below.

Shiver hadn’t paid the insurance. The park, which he operated, went bankrupt.

Among Shiver’s public jobs: Homestead mayor and councilman, county manager and then city manager of Opa-locka, whose catastrophic financing predated him and persists to this day. He was discharged in November 2015, then later hired by his close friend, newly elected president Steadman Stahl, to run the PBA in January 2018.

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

Shiver is a testament to how influential people in South Florida’s political ecosystem can be recycled over and over. An example is his former sponsor, Alex Penelas, the onetime county “boy mayor,” who brought Shiver in as county manager in 2001 after being elected countywide. Two years later, Shiver was pushed out by his benefactor. At the time, commissioners told the news media that Shiver’s political resume was brief, and for some, inadequate.

Now 57, Penelas is running to return to County Hall after a nearly two-decade absence, and the two appear to have mended fences. He was spotted with Shiver on Saturday at the PBA’s largest fundraiser at President Donald Trump’s resort in Doral.

“Happy Birthday to my dear friend Steve Shiver,” Penelas wrote on Facebook. “Great seeing you tonight at Dade County PBA Gala.”

Shiver’s hiring as the face of the PBA came despite records showing him having a lengthy history of financial mismanagement, questionable business dealings and odd alliances with people who have checkered records.

LEO Affairs, an online forum where cops have traditionally aired their gripes anonymously, is peppered with complaints, many of them potshots against Shiver or his boss.

Screen Shot 2019-05-20 at 11.25.33 PM_fitted.png
Steve Shiver, right, with his onetime sponsor, former Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas. Penelas is running for mayor again. They socialized at a Police Benevolent Association event. Facebook

Shiver told the Miami Herald last week he would not address his two bankruptcies, or any of the Herald’s other “personal questions” and hung up on a reporter. The reporter called back. Shiver said: “It’s a very humbling process. It puts a lot of people in jeopardy. I’m just glad that I get to come back and continue with life.“

‘Hero to zero’

On Jan. 29, 2018, Shiver was officially hired as the police union’s executive director, a gig that comes with an annual $140,000 salary and yearly $12,000 car allowance, plus benefits.

His hiring came about a month after he filed for bankruptcy protection, declaring debts of $8.5 million.

A sworn statement filed in the bankruptcy last September lists 31 creditors, including several banks, phone and insurance companies, medical facilities, investment firms — and a former employer who loaned him $25,000 to pay for his son’s college tuition. None of the debts have been repaid.

“I’m not trying to make light of the significance of this,” Shiver said during a 2018 deposition, “but this is at a time in my life when I’m dealing with so many emotional things for the last 10 years, going from a hero to zero.”

Among the creditors were investors in a land deal that went belly up. Shiver was part of an investment team in Savannah, Georgia, that had planned to develop 128 vacant lots and 10 boat slips, records show. The deal, for which Shiver co-signed a bank loan, went bust. Shiver ended up owing Ameris Bank more than $6 million, but never paid back the money, according to the deposition.

Before filing for the bankruptcy, Shiver transferred $67,000 to his relatives and business partner. A lawyer for the bankruptcy trustee suggested Shiver may have made the gifts to avoid having the assets seized through the bankruptcy process.

“The [bankruptcy] code presumes that you chose to repay loans to family members and affiliates instead of paying loans or repaying debts to third-party creditors,” the trustee’s lawyer, Scott Brown, said in the deposition.

Shiver ultimately agreed to return the money to his estate to avoid his relatives being sued, records show.

Kimberly McNeill, who briefly dated Shiver, is still owed $17,800, records show. McNeill says Shiver knew she had an inheritance from her father, and “promised” she’d get it back.

“Before my father passed, [Shiver] said: ‘When you lend someone money, you have to assume you’ll never get it back’,” McNeill told the Herald. “And he was right...Consider it a lesson learned.”

Others have been more forgiving.

“I have to keep moving forward. I can’t be a slave or a prisoner to someone’s misfortune,” Jose Camarillo told the Herald. He loaned Shiver $25,000 to put his son through college.

“If he wants to pay me back now that he’s making lots of money, then that’s up to him. But other than that, it is what it is. What can I do?”

The job of executive director of the PBA entails providing opinions on policies, and helping manage the union’s direction and message, according to job descriptions from prior directors. It also includes representing the PBA in collective bargaining, and in government, business and civic meetings. The job holder is a spokesman for the association, which manages a budget of more than $3 million.

The timeline of Shiver’s hiring in relation to the bankruptcy might raise some eyebrows, at least among his creditors.

Steadman Stahl told the Miami Herald that Shiver began consulting with the union around October or November of 2017, when Stahl began his campaign to unseat longtime President John Rivera, a combative leader whose style Stahl likened to “throwing battery acid.”

Facebook posts show Shiver promoting Stahl’s campaign as early as November 7.

“It was clear very early on that I needed him on the team,” Stahl said. “Steve has immense knowledge of computers and we needed to replace our antiquated systems, He is super savvy. He was a two-time city manager and mayor, which was a huge résumé-builder. I was confident that he could help turn this place around.”

Screen Shot 2019-05-20 at 11.29.42 PM.png
Steve Shiver tweets support for his now-boss at the Police Benevolent Association.

Shiver’s chronology goes like this: “Early January [2018],” he says in his a sworn statement in the bankruptcy case “I was asked to look at helping a friend... assess the current situation of the organization.”

In bankruptcy documents filed weeks before he formally landed the job, Shiver said he did not expect an increase in income within the next year.

Bankruptcy investigator: “As of the petition date, on December 15, 2017, had you begun any conversations with the PBA?”

Shiver: “No.”

Securing bankruptcy protection just before landing a six-figure job meant that Shiver could earn his salary without worrying about repaying anyone.

Zach Shelomith, president of the Bankruptcy Bar Association for Southern Florida, said “if someone files a Chapter 7 bankruptcy and successfully obtains a discharge, and shortly after they get a good-paying job, then, no, they generally don’t have to pay that money back.”

“Bankruptcy courts call that a ‘fresh start’,” Shelomith said.

Shiver told the Miami Herald last week that he “disclosed the bankruptcy” to the PBA before being hired. When exactly Shiver disclosed it he would not say.

“That’s none of your business,” he told the Herald.

Here is Stahl’s recollection: “He was very transparent with me from the beginning. He told me: ‘I’ve got some financial issues that I’m going to be attending, I’m probably going to be filing bankruptcy.”

Stahl added: “I made sure he didn’t have an expense card or had any authority to sign any checks. I wanted to make sure that the union members felt comfortable with his role here and to be confident that he won’t be touching any money.”

Down the mountain

This is not the first time Shiver has been involved with bankruptcy, records show.

Before landing the job as executive director, Shiver invested in and ran a North Carolina Wild West-themed amusement park in 2006 called Ghost Town. It ultimately went broke, leaving behind $12 million in debt. A Chapter 11 bankruptcy was later filed.

Shiver and his partners paid $7.5 million for Ghost Town’s assets, court documents show, and immediately embarked on a multimillion-dollar program to renovate and improve the park. Locals in Maggie Valley described the park as “cursed” following a series of mishaps that included a chair lift malfunction and repeated management failures.

Shiver and his partners filed for bankruptcy a year after it opened.

Then came the worst mishap. On Feb. 5, 2010, portions of the theme park tumbled down the mountain in a mudslide, hurling earth and debris thousands of feet into properties below. A North Carolina judge cited Shiver personally for “gross negligence” in the mudslide, where at least 40 people were displaced and several homes were damaged or destroyed.

Court records show Ghost Town owed about $9.5 million to BB&T of North Carolina — and more than $2.4 million to 220 other creditors.

That bankruptcy ultimately was dismissed and the property was foreclosed upon.

shiver.jpg
The landslide at Ghost Town in the Sky became a major TV news story in Maggie Valley. Steve Shiver left town owing millions.

A lawsuit filed by Ghost Town’s neighbors argued the disaster could have been avoided. A civil engineer hired by the park testified he had persistently warned Shiver that Ghost Town’s retaining wall system needed to be fixed — but that Shiver failed to take action, court records show.

A local newspaper reported that taxpayers were left on the hook to clean up the collapse. Shiver, the paper said, was ordered to pay almost $200,000 in damages, but instead left town and returned to Homestead.

During Shiver’s tenure in Homestead — as a councilman from 1993 to 1997, then mayor from 1997 to 2001 — financial problems emerged, prompting a damning report by the city’s auditor.

The audit concluded that, under Shiver’s leadership, Homestead mismanaged tens of millions of taxpayer dollars set aside to redevelop the city in the wake of Hurricane Andrew’s 1992 devastating hit.

Image-1.jpg

“The city wasn’t just spending grant money. It was assuming millions in debt,” the audit said. “Currently, the city’s long-term debt totals about $41 million. By comparison, that figure is $17 million for the city of Miami, 11 times larger in population.”

Shiver emerged from the scandal unscathed. He was then appointed by Penelas in January 2001 to be county manager.

He lasted two years. Shiver took heat over glitches with the primary election that September, over the county’s inadequate homeland security preparations and over a disclosure that the wife of Shiver’s chief of staff landed a high-paying job with the office overseeing a new transit tax.

Then, Shiver defied his boss, Penelas, by authoring a memo urging county commissioners to override Penelas’ veto of an emergency spending plan that many felt would deplete the county’s reserves. Shiver supported the plan.

“He made a mess of the county and now we have to fix it,’ said then-County Commissioner Katy Sorenson. “We need to do some rebuilding and we lost a lot of good professionals because of him. We need strong competent administration.”

On his last day, Shiver ended up awarding generous benefit packages to his two closest aides.

Troubling signs

For the next several years, Shiver worked as an amusement park investor, a real estate company owner, lobbyist, and a restaurateur. He answered phones at his father’s long-standing glass company in Florida City.

60602894_10157282655342436_1424960944974331904_n (1).jpg
Steve Shiver with the new governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis. Facebook

In 2007, Shiver used his political clout to convince the Homestead Community Redevelopment Agency, or CRA, to pay a company affiliated with him $1.9 million for 4.2 acres of depressed real estate locals called the “shotgun property” after the rundown ”shotgun-style” homes located there. An audit found the city paid more than the homes were worth, and they later were razed. The land remains vacant today.

He also logged a brief stint as city manager of one of Florida’s most troubled municipalities, Opa-locka — a far cry from helming the state’s most populous county.

Shiver’s 2015 tenure in Opa-locka was pocked with controversy. One month after Shiver was hired, a contractor accused him of soliciting a $150,000 bribe in exchange for making good on a $272,000 sewer project invoice the city manager and commission had refused to pay. The contractor’s own record cast doubt on his claims.

But within three months, Shiver and Opa-locka parted ways.

In 2017, Shiver lobbied on behalf of Janet LeGrand, who was subsequently arrested for using her fake engineering firm to try to trick the city of Homestead city into giving her a $33.3 million construction contract. Later, Shiver lobbied on her behalf to bring the deal to Florida City instead.

One of Shiver’s more recent businesses is called Quality Services and Development, Inc., a kind of jack-of-all-trades that says it engages in “any and all lawful business” in its incorporation papers. The company partnered with longtime political consultant Jose Diaz to install campaign signs across Miami-Dade last November — after Shiver already had been hired by the PBA.

After the police union had voted to endorse — and contribute to — several local judicial candidates, some of the judge hopefuls paid Diaz to install their campaign signs. Diaz then partnered with Quality Services, Shiver’s company, to do the actual installation, video footage shows. But because the deal was with Diaz, not Shiver, any payments to Shiver’s company would be hidden from state-required campaign finance and spending reports.

Steve Shiver helps the Police Benevolent Association choose which candidates to endorse. A company he owns has a role in posting the signs for some of those same candidates.

Shiver, along with the PBA board, sat on the screening committee that decided which judicial candidates the union would endorse.

Stahl said he was unaware that Shiver’s business was deploying campaign signs for candidates endorsed and funded by his union. And he didn’t know the backgrounds of Shiver’s associates, some of whom might not exactly fit within a law enforcement culture.

Shiver’s partner in Quality Services: Dennis Lewis, who was released from the Miami-Dade County Jail last week for violating his probation for driving with a suspended license, records show. He had been on probation for a 2017 conviction for carrying a stolen firearm. His rap sheet includes an arrest for domestic battery, which was dropped, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, which was dropped after he pleaded no contest to misdemeanor battery, and dealing in stolen property, also dropped.

Screen Shot 2019-05-20 at 11.41.54 PM.png
Dennis Lewis partnered with Steve Shiver in one of the former county manager’s businesses.

According to a police report, Lewis was arrested after being caught with a stolen gun while appearing to be “under the influence.”

After this article was posted online, Lewis wrote the Miami Herald to say he was a young man from a troubled environment when Shiver “took me under his wing and treated me like family.”

He said Shiver did not receive any money in connection with the placement of the signs shown in the video, adding that Shiver “always has been and always will be the good person who befriended a young kid and helped to make a difference in his life.”

Two of the others working with Lewis installing the signs also might be unwelcome at a police union gala. Rodney Alexander Brown, who has a two-decade-long criminal record, was convicted of cocaine possession on school grounds, armed burglary and aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, records show. Antwon Pierre Holmes, records show, has also been convicted of selling marijuana on school grounds.

“I can’t tell people who to do business with,” Stahl said.

This article has been updated.

Monique O. Madan covers immigration and enterprise; she previously covered breaking news and local government. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Boston Herald and The Dallas Morning News. She is currently a 2018-2019 Reveal Fellow at the Center for Investigative Reporting. She graduated from Miami Dade College and Emerson College in Boston.A note to tipsters: If you want to send Monique O. Madan confidential information, her email and mailbox are open. The address is 3511 NW 91st Ave, Doral, FL 33172. You can also direct message her on social media and she’ll provide encrypted Signal details.

  Comments