Miami Gardens - Opa-locka

Opa-locka lawsuit describes sordid world of threats, shakedowns

Frank Zambrana says city officials in Opa-locka repeatedly squeezed him for payoffs.
Frank Zambrana says city officials in Opa-locka repeatedly squeezed him for payoffs. CBS4

Frank Zambrana, a struggling Opa-locka businessman whose story of extortion and bribes sparked the largest federal corruption investigation in Miami-Dade in a generation, has filed a lawsuit claiming the misconduct of city leaders nearly destroyed his life.

The 48-year-old heavy equipment operator from Nicaragua, whose undercover work as an FBI informant has led to the convictions of two key public officials, is seeking damages and a jury trial for what he said were sweeping civil rights violations that forced him to shut down his business last year.

The father of five said the reason he filed the case was to show the difficulties he and his family were forced to endure during his efforts to operate a simple business.

While he said he was fending off city officials trying to shake him down, two of his sons died — one from suicide, the other from cancer.

“They left a mark on my life that I will never forget,” Zambrana told the Miami Herald in April. “They never even thought what they were doing to me.”

The complaint was filed in federal court in Miami on Tuesday, the day after a key target in the investigation, David Chiverton, pleaded guilty to demanding cash bribes from Zambrana and others in exchange for business licenses and water connections.

In protecting his business, Zambrana emerged as a symbolic figure who fought the corruption that pervaded nearly every department at City Hall, detailing the challenges he and other business owners confronted when just trying to get permits and water services.

The lawsuit is the first in what’s expected to be a string of cases by business owners against a beleaguered city that is not only the target of an FBI probe but under the control of a state oversight board because of failing finances.

Zambrana’s lawsuit, for the first time, attempts to chronicle his struggles after he launched what was to be his dream on Northwest 141st Street: a heavy equipment repair service.

He states in his suit that his efforts to obtain a $150 occupational license would turn into an odyssey of rejections, threats and bribes that eventually prompted him to take his case to the FBI in 2014.

Over the next two years, Zambrana carried a concealed video device in parking lots and City Hall while he paid thousands in cash bribes to some of the city’s most prominent public figures.

The lawsuit describes an elaborate, illicit enterprise that began with city inspectors imposing fines on Zambrana’s business, Rhino Equipment Service, for code violations and operating without a license. The man described as the chief enforcer: Gregory Days.

Week after week, Days imposed fines while threatening to shut down Zambrana’s business, throw him in jail and report him to immigration authorities, the suit states.

“With each subsequent visit, the threat from Days would become more hostile,” the suit alleges. “Days referred to Zambrana as Mexican.”

Zambrana claims in his case the fines and threats were followed by visits by other city officials who promised to deliver his business license in exchange for cash.

“A license that is routinely obtained for a few hundred dollars became a living hell for Zambrana,” according to his case.

In one example, Commissioner Luis Santiago showed up at the business, promising to deliver an occupational license, but at a cost: $2,800.

He eventually handed Santiago $1,500, but could not come up with the rest.

Santiago, 53, then demanded even more money — $1,800, saying that Zambrana would “need to take care of a few more people” at City Hall, the suit states.

He paid the commissioner $1,000, but the license was not delivered.

Reached by phone on Wednesday, Days told the Herald he had been “cleared” without identifying which law enforcement agency made that decision. He then said, “I strongly suggest you call the FBI” before hanging up on the reporter. Santiago did not respond to interview requests on Wednesday. The FBI has declined to discuss the case.

Angry and frustrated, Zambrana took a bold step that would change his life: He went to the FBI, ultimately agreeing to wear a device to capture the payoffs on video.

Within days, Zambrana paid $500 to Santiago while the commissioner was sitting in his city-issued SUV with a gun at his side, Zambrana told the Herald.

The shakedowns didn’t end with Santiago. He introduced the struggling businessman to another local official who would demand even more money.

One of the most popular public figures in Opa-locka, David Chiverton met with Zambrana at City Hall and in parking lots, accepting thousands in bribes while he was being secretly recorded, prosecutors said.

In one instance, Chiverton, 51, then the assistant city manager, demanded $3,500 to help the businessman get a license, but Zambrana eventually negotiated the price to $2,800, the suit claims.

While he was paying bribes — the money provided by the FBI — Zambrana was steeped in his own crisis: His son, Andy, was dying of cancer and he was losing money at his business.

A license that is routinely obtained for a few hundred dollars became a living hell for Zambrana.

federal lawsuit filed Tuesday against Opa-locka

He had borrowed from investors, but was unable to pay them and at one point, had to tap into his son’s Social Security disability fund to pay the rent on his business property.

“His American dream turned into a nightmare,” said his lawyer, Michael Pizzi, former assistant city attorney for Opa-locka. “It’s a human tragedy.”

Opa-locka City Attorney Vince Brown said he not yet seen the lawsuit and could not comment.

Pizzi said he expects the lawsuit to expose the breadth of corruption in Opa-locka and the toll it took on Zambrana and his family. Andy died at 18 in February after a long bout with cancer. His other son, Christian, died last year at 21.

Despite the pressure, Zambrana continued to help the FBI by meeting with public officials during tense encounters. Twice, he was searched for recording devices, once by Santiago and another time by powerful City Hall lobbyist Dante Starks.

Ultimately, the lawsuit is about justice, “because justice is years overdue in this case,” said Pizzi. “He’s doing this for his dead children. He’s just an average person. He’s not rich. But he’s a giant in terms of character and courage. What happened to him is a disgrace.”