South Florida

Opa-locka finance advisor once targeted in county ethics probe

Ezekial Orji, left, was brought in to help steer Opa-locka out of its financial quagmire—despite once having steered tens of thousands in taxpayer dollars to a close friend and contractor who had been charged with taking more than $700,000 in kickbacks.
Ezekial Orji, left, was brought in to help steer Opa-locka out of its financial quagmire—despite once having steered tens of thousands in taxpayer dollars to a close friend and contractor who had been charged with taking more than $700,000 in kickbacks.

With Opa-locka’s finances nearly drained and its government facing a state takeover, local officials acted swiftly to hire the man they said could help the city survive: former finance chief Ezekial Orji.

They gave him an office at City Hall, a computer and a cadre of workers to help root out serious breakdowns in the city’s budget.

“I wanted him to come on board,” said acting city manager Yvette Harrell.

But the man entrusted two weeks ago with planning the city’s financial future had his own troubled history while previously working in Opa-locka: He once steered tens of thousands in taxpayer dollars to a close friend and contractor who had been charged with taking more than $700,000 in kickbacks.

Orji failed to disclose tens of thousands in outside sources of income, and had once set up a company and diverted $10,000 from a client — the Nigerian government — investigators found.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Tom Marko, a former Opa-locka assistant city manager. “You’ve got all these problems. He’s got tons of baggage. Isn’t there someone else?”

The hiring of the 67-year-old accountant created yet another public relations snafu for a city that was placed under a state of financial emergency on June 1 and continues to face an FBI corruption probe into kickback schemes involving a host of Opa-locka elected leaders and employees.

Orji, who was brought on by Harrell to serve as a key point person between the city and the governor’s oversight board, did not respond to repeated interview requests.

Harrell defended her decision, saying Orji was not charged or sanctioned during the county ethics investigation in 2012 and that she had cleared his hiring with the state before he arrived on May 31.

“There was no red flag,” she told the Miami Herald last week.

However, sources who spoke to the Herald on the condition of anonymity said Orji’s past problems were not disclosed to the the governor’s office. Hours after the Herald requested information about Orji’s employment and compensation package on Wednesday, he resigned his job and said he would not be returning to City Hall in a move that surprised employees who worked with him.

The decision to hire Orji took place while the city was steeped in delicate negotiations with the governor’s office over the imminent takeover of Opa-locka’s government, just days after its top financial director warned city leaders the city was close to insolvent.

Melinda Miguel, the state inspector general who has monitored the city’s budget since last year, did not respond to interview requests. However, sources said the inspector general was sent copies of the ethics investigation of Orji last week after he had already started his job.

Harrell said in an email that no employment agreement existed between the city and Orji and that he had not been paid, but did not elaborate. On Wednesday, she said Orji stepped down because of problems he perceived in working with the state oversight board, appointed by Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday.

“I regret the fact that he was unable to work for us,” she said.

Orji’s brief stint was marked by tense meetings over efforts to balance the budget, including tapping into a City Hall building fund — $800,000 — a risky move because the fund was created to back the bonds that were raised to buy the building, legal experts say.

At stake: the city’s need to cover future payrolls for 170 employees, many of whom are already working a 32-hour week. In a recent email, Finance Director Charmaine Parchment warned the city would run out of money in early June.

Harrell insists the city is facing a $2 million shortfall and has enough money, but other top officials, including the current finance director, say the number has swelled to $4.5 million — and growing. In a corner office at City Hall, hundreds of checks have been written to vendors but remain bundled in stacks because they will bounce if they are cashed. The amount owed to vendors: $600,000.

The move to bring Orji back follows years of struggling to balance the budget, which has been losing money from plunging property tax receipts and major breakdowns in the city’s ability to collect water and sewer revenues.

Before retiring in 2013, Orji had managed to create a reserve — a rare feat in one of the poorest cities in Florida — but he also became ensnared in a project rife with illegal activities that would push the city on its downward spiral.

At the time, the $4.3 million Sherbondy Village development — a sprawling facility with a pool and 250-seat theater — was led by Emmanuel Nwadike, the city’s chief engineering consultant, who happened to be a close friend of Orji, records state.

The ribbon cutting for Sherbondy Village

After starting the job, Nwadike was charged in an unrelated sewer contract scandal and was banned from doing any more work on the community center. But he managed to set up a shell company, General Design Professionals, and install a janitor he knew as president.

The city commission awarded the job to the company at the behest of Orji, who assured his superiors that Nwadike was not with the firm, records state.

In the ensuing months, the city paid the company more than $100,000, while the disgraced contractor was often seen at City Hall visiting Orji in his office, and socializing with him at parties and dinners.

Ultimately, Nwadike was charged with fraud and other offenses for hiding his ownership stake in the company. Orji was not charged, but was harshly criticized by investigators, who said the evidence “strongly suggested that Mr. Orji facilitated improper payments to Nwadike, with whom he has a close personal relationship.”

Over the next year, the ethics commission found that Orji failed to disclose tens of thousands in outside income on his disclosure forms. One bank wire that caught their attention: $84,000 sent to Oriji from Nigeria. Turns out, the money was delivered to train Nigerian airport workers at Miami International Airport.

Investigators later discovered Orji diverted $10,000 of the money to a for-profit company created for his daughter, a college student. The name: EZ Universal Consulting LLC. Orji’s daughter told investigators that she spent some of the money on personal items, including shoes.

In the end, investigators couldn’t determine if Orji received any money from his friend, Nwadike, nor could they get cooperation from Nigerian authorities.

They concluded “the admitted actions of Mr. Orji call into question his ability to serve as finance director for a city such as Opa-locka, where he is entrusted with managing numerous accounts holding millions of dollars.”

Marko, the former assistant city manager, said the city not only erred in selected Orji to fix its problems, but turned to a practice that has played out in the city for years: hiring insiders. The city should have brought in someone with no ties to the city, he said.

“They needed an independent, seasoned professional,” he said.

A University of Miami law professor who reviewed the ethics report at the Herald’s request said the findings should have prompted current Opa-locka officials to be far more vigilant in selecting a consultant to deal with the city’s emergency.

“It is both inexplicable and troubling that the city of Opa-locka would hire Mr. Orji to serve in a fiduciary capacity at a time of municipal financial crisis,” said Anthony Alfieri, director of UM’s Center for Ethics & Public Service.

Jay Weaver: 305-376-3446, @jayhweaver

Michael Sallah: 305-376-2218, @MikeSallah7

The oversight board

On June 1, Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of financial emergency in Opa-locka, whose government is nearly insolvent. Last week, the governor appointed nine members to a state oversight board that will have final say over the city's budget over the next five years as it pursues a financial recovery. The board is headed by the state’s chief inspector general, Melinda Miguel.

Other members are:

▪ Christian Weiss, Policy Coordinator, Executive Office of Governor Rick Scott

▪ Kim Mills, Director of Auditing, Florida Housing Finance Corporation

▪ Andrew Collins, Chief of Financial Monitoring and Accountability, Florida Department of Economic Opportunity

▪ Angela Knecht, Program Administrator, Florida Department of Environmental Protection

▪ Marie Walker, Director of Auditing, Florida Department of Revenue

▪ J.D. Patterson, Jr., Former Director of the Miami-Dade Police Department (Retired)

▪ Vernita Nelson, Assistant City Manager, City of Miami Gardens

▪ Frank Rollason, City Manager, North Bay Village