South Florida

Opa-locka Mayor Myra Taylor and her husband focus of criminal investigation

Mayor Myra Taylor and Bishop John Taylor at Friday’s state-of-the-city address, where the mayor declared the city is on the right track.
Mayor Myra Taylor and Bishop John Taylor at Friday’s state-of-the-city address, where the mayor declared the city is on the right track.

For much of their marriage, Opa-locka Mayor Myra Taylor and her husband, Bishop John Taylor, have survived cascading legal crises, starting with a bankruptcy filing three decades ago.

In 2004, they were arrested on federal charges of tax fraud, forcing the mayor from office until she was placed on probation and could win back her coveted post.

After her re-election in 2010, her husband and two other family members were arrested on criminal campaign charges, followed by the bishop’s eviction last year from his church by Miami-Dade police amid crushing debts.

But the husband and wife long considered the political leaders of their community are now faced with perhaps their most daunting challenge: evidence they engaged in a kickback scheme in a desperate effort to keep their personal finances from collapse.

The Miami Herald has learned the Taylors are at the center of a federal criminal investigation just as Opa-locka’s government has careened out of control with millions in debts amid the threat of an emergency takeover by the state.

Much of the case centers on a series of backroom meetings in September and a controversial sewer repair project to provide $150,000 back to the bishop — with the mayor pushing the deal behind the scenes to make sure the money was approved, records and interviews show. The middleman: newly hired City Manager Steve Shiver.

The arrangement unraveled weeks later when Shiver refused to back the plan, which drew the attention of the FBI and Miami-Dade ethics commission, according to confidential sources.

The contractor, George Howard, told the Herald he agreed to the deal, but only to recover money he said the city already owed him — and that he had no intention of diverting money to the bishop for what was to be a down payment for a new house of worship in Miami Gardens.

The mayor declined to discuss the sewer pump station project, noting in an email Saturday she would not talk about “vendor relations in the media.” In an interview in October, however, she said she did not take part in any deal with the pump station to enrich her family. “I would not have condoned that at all,” she said. “I’ve never asked anyone for anything.”

The investigation of the couple is the most recent in a string of cases against them for using their influence to prop up personal interests, including the mayor casting votes to funnel thousands to benefit her charity — drawing a public reprimand and fine by the ethics commission in 2011.

The couple was caught diverting tens of thousands of dollars years earlier from a charter school founded by the mayor to benefit the family, including payments for two Mercedes Benzes, and a host of other expenses that led to tax-evasion convictions.

The couple always managed to rebound and protect their family holdings, but for the first time, they are in danger of losing their livelihoods and their legacies.

“The Bishop,” as he’s called, was forced from his New Beginning Embassy of Praise Church at 2398 NW 119th St. in August after failing to pay his $3,500-a-month rent for two years. Just last year, the couple was sued over the institution that has become the family’s cornerstone — the sprawling Vankara Educational Center — in two foreclosure cases to satisfy $1.8 million in debts. In addition, the school at 13331 Alexandria Dr. in Opa-locka still owes more than $100,000 in unpaid water bills.

Their financial troubles, uncovered through court and other public records, show the Taylors have been in dire straits for years, including overdue loans totaling $2.5 million — mostly at double-digit interest rates.

The couple’s misfortune, much like Opa-locka, has reached a breaking point.

Steve Barrett, a former vice mayor and longtime activist, said the Taylors’ problems have shadowed the community at a time it needed leadership. “The sad thing is, you have four other commissioners who know Myra Taylor, but will not publicly say what Myra Taylor is doing is wrong,” he said.

The couple’s alleged last-ditch effort to squeeze badly needed funds from a local sewer project began as Opa-locka’s government was dangerously close to financial collapse in a community where a third of the people live in poverty.

Desperate to reverse course, the commissioners made a surprise choice for city manager in September: Shiver, who had endured his own controversial public career, including a tumultuous term as county manager and a stint as Homestead mayor.

Details of the events that followed, from emails, public records and interviews, show that almost from the start, the couple pressured the new manager to help them with their personal finances even as the city was failing to pay hundreds of vendors.

During a dinner meeting at a Cuban restaurant with the Taylors in September, Shiver saw a hint of what would soon consume his tenure and lead to one of the most compelling public corruption controversies in Miami-Dade in years.

From across the table, the bishop began to pressure him for money, seeking a personal donation for $3,000, according to a statement Shiver made in a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The reason: The bishop had just been evicted from his longtime church in late August and needed the cash to help him move to a new house of worship.

Shiver said he was taken aback by the bishop’s request. “He was being foreclosed on and needed money to get moved,” Shiver wrote in his complaint. Ultimately, the city manager said he never turned over the cash, noting it was “just simply not appropriate.” Shiver declined to comment for this story.

At the time, Bishop Taylor, 71, known to walk the corridors of City Hall with a trademark cane, was trying to raise money for the move and a hefty down payment on a new church he was eying in Miami Gardens. With just days to come up with the funds, the bishop returned to Shiver again, this time with a much larger request.

During a dinner at the Ale House in Miami Lakes in October, the Taylors unveiled a plan to allow the bishop to gain access to $150,000 in taxpayer money — the amount needed for the church down payment — but without any public scrutiny, according to testimony under review by investigators.

This plan revolved around a contentious sewer repair contract between the city and a contractor who had yet to be paid in full. The contractor, George Howard, a friend of the bishop’s, had been compensated for most of the job but was still owed hundreds of thousands for extra work he said he performed.

Once Howard was paid, he would then funnel the money to the bishop, under the alleged plan. But there was a hitch: Commissioners had never approved the extra work nor the additional payment, totaling $272,000, a fundamental breach of city procedures.

The mayor offered a solution, telling Shiver that he “should just write a check” from the city coffers, according to Shiver’s federal complaint.

Shiver, 49, said he was troubled by the meeting, especially after examining the pump station records to see if there were documents by the city approving the new work. There were none.

While Shiver said he was fending off the Taylors, he was confronting the city’s crippled finances, which put him at even greater odds with the mayor. Millions in bills were going unpaid. Angry suppliers were showing up at City Hall. County officials were demanding payment for utility fees the city had already collected from residents.

Shiver described scenes at City Hall where clerks would stuff envelopes with checks to vendors “already printed but not delivered because there was no cash in the bank.”

Tom Marko, a former Miami-Dade County budget analyst who was hired by Shiver, said he became aware of the Taylors’ pressure to pay off just one contractor — Howard — while the city was edging toward bankruptcy, owing $8 million. “Every day, it was getting more and more difficult to work there,” Marko said. “The things that were going on there. It was like a shadow government.”

On Oct. 14, the mayor called for a vote to pay Howard, but ended up losing in a 4-1 decision after Shiver declared at the public meeting that the contractor didn’t deserve the money.

Two days later, the Taylors’ purported backroom deal with Howard spilled into the public light. Howard fired off a letter to Shiver — after the two had met privately in September to talk about the pump station deal — in what has now become a focal point of the FBI investigation.

His letter acknowledged that a scheme was under way and went so far as to accuse Shiver of being the mayor’s representative, “Such an act would be blatantly illegal,” Howard wrote in the Oct. 16 letter, copied to the mayor and commissioners.

But multiple sources close to the investigation told the Herald that Shiver had no role in the Taylors’ plan and that he had opposed the deal from the start. Those sources said Howard penned the letter to protect himself in case the purported scheme came to light.

In an interview, Howard distanced himself from the scandal, saying he wrote the letter only to put Shiver on notice that he was not a participant. Howard said he had no intention to divert any money to the Taylors, adding that he only wanted to be paid for work done months earlier. “In my mind, I wanted to get my money and get as far away from this situation as I could,” Howard told the Herald. Asked if he has met with the FBI, Howard declined to comment.

The FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office have long been investigating the Taylors’ financial dealings and their relationships with contractors doing business with the city. But the pump station deal has helped FBI agents build one of the first federal cases in Opa-locka in more than a decade.

For the Taylors, the case provides one of the first serious challenges to their positions as community leaders, partly because of the possibility of federal charges. Residents have threatened recall efforts over the mayor’s inability to stem the city’s bleeding finances.

After the mayor’s successful drive to fire Shiver in November, a large group of residents began talking about circulating a petition to remove the 67-year-old mayor from office. “How can you run your own city sufficiently when you can’t even run your own business?” said Chris Roberts, a neighborhood activist.

Just months after he was hired to resolve Opa-locka’s deepening financial crisis, City Manager Steve Shiver was fired from his job by commissioners in yet another tumultuous development in a city millions of dollars in debt.

During Taylor’s state-of-the-city address Friday night, scores of people gathered at Sherbondy Village community center to hear her speech. Taylor did not talk about her personal ordeals, instead assuring the crowd: “The Opa-locka train of progress is still on track and headed for new heights and new destinations,” she said. “They can’t stop us.”

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