David Chiverton, a popular Opa-locka manager who once promised to help rescue the city from insolvency, pleaded guilty in federal court on Monday to using his office to pocket thousands in cash bribes from local business owners in one of the largest corruption cases in South Florida in decades.
The 51-year-old administrator is among a cadre of Opa-locka government leaders who were caught shaking down businesses in exchange for permits and water connections during the FBI sting, which used informants who videotaped the illegal payoffs in parking lots, a restaurant and a bathroom in City Hall.
His guilty plea comes just weeks after a state financial board overseeing the city’s operations declared that Opa-locka is on the edge of bankruptcy and may not have enough money to pay its workers through the end of the year.
In addition to the case against Chiverton, a sweeping indictment is expected to be returned by a grand jury in Miami that will likely name other known figures, including City Commissioner Luis Santiago, according to sources. Public Works Supervisor Gregory Harris pleaded guilty two weeks ago to a bribery charge.
Both Harris and Chiverton, who began cooperating with the FBI after a highly publicized raid on City Hall in March, struck deals with prosecutors in exchange for their knowledge about a host of extortion activities in nearly every city department, including code enforcement and water services.
David Garvin, a longtime Miami defense lawyer who represents Chiverton, said his client accepted responsibility for his role in activities that had been taking place on a much larger scale in the city for years, and that he felt enormous pressure from certain politicians to join in the illicit schemes.
Garvin said Chiverton, a one-time unsuccessful Miami commission candidate, should have “simply quit his job” rather than succumb to the pressure, but he needed to keep his $123,500-a-year salary as city manager.
Chiverton, who could receive more than three years in prison, had been on leave from office since May after a Miami Herald investigation found he had cashed in nearly $40,000 in payroll benefits to which he was not entitled. He formally resigned on Aug. 1, saying it was time to “move on.”
For the past two years, Chiverton joined with Santiago, Harris, Corleon Taylor, the son of Mayor Myra Taylor, and powerful City Hall lobbyist Dante Starks in a widening scheme to enrich themselves by demanding “payments and other things of value” from Opa-locka businesses, according to the government’s case.
Santiago, 53, identified as “Public Official A” in the federal documents, shared in the illegal dollars with Chiverton while directing local business owners to deliver money to him.
Chiverton obtained “illegal payments” from three business owners who worked undercover, carrying concealed recording devices into the meetings. Although not identified, two of the informants told the Miami Herald that they managed to capture video of the bribes involving Santiago, Chiverton, Harris, Starks and Corleon Taylor.
Frank Zambrana, who owned an equipment storage business, and Francisco Pujol, who runs a tire recycling company, told the Herald they paid Chiverton and the others thousands of dollars to get badly needed occupational licenses as well as water connections.
With Chiverton’s cooperation, the FBI and prosecutor Ed Stamm may be able to build an even stronger case against other city officials suspected of shaking down local businesses for cash.
Four years ago, Chiverton was hired as assistant city manager and rose to the top post in November after the commission fired his predecessor, Steve Shiver, following his public disclosures that Opa-locka was almost broke.
Just four months ago, Chiverton, still in office at the time, pledged to the city commission during a meeting that he could balance the troubled budget. However, with the city facing staggering debts in the millions, the state oversight board appointed by the governor took over the reins of Opa-locka’s finances in June.