South Florida

Steve Shiver’s wild ride: from county manager to theme park boss to bankruptcy and beyond

Steve Shiver
Steve Shiver

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

Steve Shiver, who formerly ran the largest local government in Florida — drawing up multibillion-dollar budgets — is down but not out.

The former Miami-Dade County manager has had a wild ride since leaving the county’s employ in June 2003.

He tried to resurrect a mountaintop theme park, Ghost Town in the Sky, only to see part of it slide down a steep slope, causing havoc below. A Georgia land development went bust. He joined forces with the operator of an engineering firm seeking a $33 million construction project in Homestead, where he formerly served as mayor, only to see the operator arrested — while in the waiting room at a waxing salon — after law enforcement alleged that her engineering credentials were bogus. For good measure, he did a brief stint as city manager of Opa-locka, perhaps the most financially fraught municipality in the state.

In his most recent self-reinvention, he was hired by a friend — weeks after filing for personal bankruptcy protection — as the $140,000-a-year executive director of the Miami-Dade Police Benevolent Association. The PBA negotiates contracts on behalf of law officers and decides which political candidates receive the prized endorsement of local police, enabling Shiver to hobnob with some of the top politicians in the state, including Gov. Ron DeSantis.

That PBA gig ended Wednesday. He resigned the day this article was posted online.

Like the bumper car ride at Ghost Town in the Sky, Shiver has had a turbulent journey. And it’s not over yet, Shiver pledged on social media.

“I want to say thank you for all the well wishes and calls as I turn another page in my book,” Shiver, 53, wrote on Facebook upon turning in his resignation. “There is much to do in this next year and it seems to be getting more exciting every day. Thanks again and know that I love you guys.”

Steve Losner, a lawyer from a long-influential Homestead family who has known Shiver for decades and represents one of Shiver’s many stiffed creditors, said: “With all of his troubles — personal and political — he always seems to land on his feet. ... I’m sure he’ll pick himself up and keep going, just like he did in Homestead, the county, Opa-locka. ...”

During the good times, Shiver took spa trips to Sanibel, skied in the Smokies and dined at Smith & Wollensky. Recently, under questioning by a bankruptcy trustee, he described a different life, one plagued by epic financial failures he blamed largely on the economic downturn of a decade ago. 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 Ghost Town, a misfortune compounded by the fact that he hadn’t paid the insurance premiums.

Could he return to being a city or county manager? His most recent public service job ended ingloriously in November 2015, when Opa-locka, which was cycling through a string of city managers, fired him after three months on the job.

In January 2018, he was hired by his close friend, newly elected president Steadman Stahl, to run the PBA.

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

When Stahl hired someone with such a haphazard history for such a critical role, cops took notice. It was just a month after Shiver had filed for bankruptcy, listing debts of $8.5 million.

LEO Affairs, an online forum where cops have traditionally (and anonymously) aired their gripes, was soon awash in vitriol — nameless police officers taking figurative potshots at Shiver and his boss.

Shiver told the Miami Herald before this article published online that he would not address his two bankruptcies — one personal, one for the theme park — or any of the Herald’s other “personal questions” and hung up the phone. When the reporter called back, Shiver resumed: “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’

A sworn statement filed last September in the bankruptcy listed 31 creditors, including several banks, phone and insurance companies, medical facilities, investment firms — and a former employer who loaned Shiver $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 the ill-fated land deal. 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.

Steve Shiver, once Miami-Dade county manager, has also served stints as Homestead mayor and Opa-locka city manager. He is currently executive director of the Miami-Dade Police Benevolent Association.

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 recover the money 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.

“Consider it a lesson learned,” she said

Others have been philosophical.

“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 for the college loan.

“It is what it is,” Camarillo said. “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 was curious and a little confusing.

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 PBA 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 Nov. 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.”

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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 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.

Filing for bankruptcy protection just before landing a six-figure job meant that Shiver could earn his new salary without worrying about repaying old debts.

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.

Stahl said he made sure Shiver “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

In a life of professional ups and downs, Shiver’s 2006 purchase of Ghost Town in the Sky, the wild west theme park, was arguably the most spectacular flameout.

Shiver and his partners paid $7.5 million for Ghost Town’s assets, court documents show. Immediately they embarked on a multimillion-dollar program to renovate and improve the park. Some people in Maggie Valley, North Carolina, the local community, described the park as “cursed” following a series of mishaps that included a chair lift malfunction and live rounds that somehow found their way into a gun meant to shoot blanks.

Shiver and his partners filed for bankruptcy in June 2009.

Then things got worse. 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, damaging homes and displacing residents. A North Carolina judge cited Shiver personally for “gross negligence.”

Court records show Ghost Town owed about $9.5 million to the financial institution 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.

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.

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.

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

It was not his first brush with financial trouble.

Shiver’s big break — becoming county manager — came despite a less than pristine track record in Homestead.

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

The report 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.

Homestead’s financial difficulties did not deter then-county Mayor Alex Penelas from picking Shiver as county manager in 2001, an unusual choice considering Shiver was an elected official, not a government administrator. He lasted about two years. Shiver took heat over glitches with a primary election, 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 Penelas by authoring a memo urging county commissioners to override the mayor’s 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,” then-County Commissioner Katy Sorenson said at the time. “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 awarded generous benefit packages to his two closest aides.

Troubling signs

In subsequent years, when Shiver wasn’t working as an amusement park investor, a real estate company owner or a lobbyist, he answered phones at his father’s long-standing glass company in Florida City.

In 2007, Shiver used his Homestead connections to convince the city’s 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.

His tenure in Opa-locka was short but not devoid of 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 previous city manager and commission had refused to pay. The contractor’s own questionable record cast doubt on his claim.

Shiver’s firing had nothing to do with that. He was jettisoned after defying his bosses and warning the state about the city’s major budget meltdown. A Miami Herald investigation ultimately revealed that city leaders had secretly ordered their staff to tap into a reserve fund that was set aside to cover bank loans in case the city failed to pay them.

From there, Shiver drifted back to South Dade, this time as part of a team seeking the $33 million construction contract. When Homestead resisted the company’s pitch, the team took the deal to Florida City, where Shiver’s father, who goes by the initials R.S., is a longtime councilman and runs a glass company. The son lobbied on the company’s behalf, which failed to land a deal when the owner, Janet LeGrand, was arrested for having fake credentials.

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Janet Maria LeGrand was arrested on July 19, 2017, and booked into the Miami-Dade County jail. Miami-Dade County Corrections

One of Shiver’s more recent ventures is Quality Services and Development Inc., a kind of jack-of-all-trades firm whose incorporation papers say it engages in “any and all lawful business.” The company made a cameo when Shiver was hired by the PBA to, among other duties, screen political candidates.

After the police union had voted to endorse — and contribute to — several local judicial candidates, some of the judicial hopefuls hired longtime political consultant Jose Diaz to install their campaign signs. Diaz brought in Quality Services, Shiver’s company, to do the actual installation, video provided to the Miami Herald shows.

Stahl said he was unaware that Shiver’s business was involved in doing the sign work, 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 fit within a law enforcement culture.

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’s partner in Quality Services: Dennis Lewis, who just got out of the Miami-Dade County Jail. He was busted on May 13 for violating his probation by driving with a suspended license, records show. He had been on probation for a 2017 conviction for carrying a stolen firearm. His rap sheet has other entries: 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.

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Dennis Lewis partnered with Steve Shiver in one of the former county manager’s businesses.

After this article first appeared online, Lewis wrote the Miami Herald to defend Shiver. He said 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 signs and 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.”

The two men helping Lewis post signs touting judicial candidates had also racked up multiple arrests. 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 a rap sheet that includes a conviction for selling marijuana on school grounds.

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

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 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 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.