In early February of this year, two men met in the foyer of the bathroom on the fourth floor at Opa-locka City Hall to take care of business.
Francisco Pujol, who needed a new license for his tire recycling company, handed City Manager David Chiverton a stack of $100 bills totaling $2,500.
Chiverton put the cash in his pocket and told Pujol that he would get him what he needed.
What each didn’t know: the other was working undercover for the FBI in a sting operation. But that’s where the similarity ended: Pujol had turned on his recording device; Chiverton had kept his off.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
On Monday, a federal judge sentenced Chiverton, who pleaded guilty to a bribery charge, to just over three years in prison — mainly because prosecutors said he obstructed justice while he was supposed to be helping the feds.
FBI agents found that Chiverton — after he agreed to help them in a widening corruption investigation at City Hall — had double-crossed them. Instead of assisting agents as he had promised when they first confronted him as a main suspect in July 2015, Chiverton continued to shake down local businessmen like Pujol for cash in exchange for doing official favors, according to newly filed court papers.
“He unfortunately still engaged in ongoing criminal conduct,” assistant U.S. attorney Edward Stamm told U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga during Chiverton’s sentencing Monday in Miami federal court.
The prosecutor said Chiverton broke his promise to the FBI, didn’t record the bathroom bribe and failed to disclose his continual illicit activity until “he ultimately admitted” to everything. The 52-year-old public administrator pleaded guilty in September to conspiring to extort Opa-locka business owners and accept a total of $7,600 in bribes.
It’s not what we expect to happen in a municipality in this country. It shocks the residents. It shocks the taxpayers.
U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga
In crafting Chiverton’s sentence, the judge gave him less than the four years sought by prosecutors after the defendant said he still had to take care of a grown daughter with an incurable neurological illness.
Altonaga also gave him three years of probation, including eight months of home confinement. She also ordered him to reimburse the U.S. government for his pocketed bribes during the FBI sting operation between 2014 and 2016.
Altonaga allowed Chiverton to wait until Feb. 21 to surrender to prison authorities, mainly because prosecutors asked her for that concession while he is still providing information for the corruption investigation.
In the end, the judge described Chiverton’s crime as a “very serious offense.”
“It’s not what we expect to happen in a municipality in this country,” Altonaga said. “It shocks the residents. It shocks the taxpayers.”
Chiverton, who has worked in local government jobs and programs in Miami-Dade County throughout his life, apologized to the judge, to his family and to the residents of Opa-locka, one of Florida’s poorest communities. More than 20 of his supporters came to his sentencing.
“I’m humiliated by just standing here,” Chiverton told the judge, saying that it was his dream job to become city manager in Opa-locka. He said his predecessors in that post had been pressured by Opa-locka elected officials and others to participate in bribery schemes, but Chiverton thought he could resist and “stay out of harm’s way.”
However, Chiverton admitted that he succumbed to the temptation, saying: “I should have quit and walked away.”
Indictment to come
Chiverton, who had promised to help rescue the city from insolvency, 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 the bathroom at City Hall.
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 then-City Commissioner Luis Santiago, according to sources. Santiago, who lost his bid for another four-year term in the Nov. 8 election, is suspected of soliciting bribes from business owners and directing Chiverton and others to help carry out the alleged extortion schemes.
Public Works supervisor Gregory Harris pleaded guilty in late August to the same bribery charge as Chiverton, but his late October sentencing was postponed because of his cooperation in the ongoing investigation.
Both Harris and Chiverton agreed to work with the FBI after a highly publicized raid on City Hall in March, striking agreements with prosecutors Stamm and Michelle Alvarez that compelled the two officials to provide information on a variety of extortion activities in nearly every city department, including code enforcement and water services.
I’m humiliated by just standing here.
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 Chiverton felt enormous pressure from certain politicians to join in the illicit schemes.
Garvin said Chiverton, who once ran for the Miami City Commission but lost, should have quit his job but needed his $123,500-a-year salary as city manager because he had financial difficulties, including taking care of his daughter’s medical bills in addition to his family. Chiverton also said in court papers that he suffers from obesity, high blood pressure and heart problems.
Chiverton 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.”
Over the past three years, Chiverton joined with Santiago; Harris; Corleon Taylor, the son of Mayor Myra Taylor; and powerful City Hall lobbyist Dante Starks in the sprawling racket to enrich themselves by demanding “payments and other things of value” from Opa-locka businesses, according to the government’s case.
Santiago, 55, identified as “Public Official A” in federal documents, shared in the illegal payments with Chiverton while directing local business owners to deliver money to him.
Neither Santiago nor Corleon Taylor returned calls and messages seeking comment. Starks also could not be reached.
Chiverton obtained “illegal payments” from three business owners who worked undercover, carrying concealed recording devices into the meetings. Although not identified in the documents, two of the FBI 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 business, told the Herald they paid Chiverton, Santiago and the others thousands of dollars to get water connections or badly needed licenses that should cost $150 to $250.
Frank Zambrana, who owned an equipment storage business, and Pujol, who runs a tire business, told the Herald they paid Chiverton, Santiago and the others thousands of dollars to get water connections or badly needed licenses that should cost $150 to $250.
Four years ago, Chiverton was hired as assistant city manager and rose to the top post last November after the commission fired his predecessor, Steve Shiver, following his public disclosures that Opa-locka was almost broke.
Chiverton pledged to the city commission during a meeting that he could balance the budget. However, with the city facing staggering debts in the millions of dollars, a state oversight board appointed by the governor took over the reins of Opa-locka’s finances in June.
The city commission has yet to approve the budget for the 2017 fiscal year, which began in October.