Miami Gardens - Opa-locka

Turning code violations into payoffs, the Opa-locka way

‘It was a nightmare,’ said Frank Zambrana, who became an FBI informant after, he says, city officials repeatedly tried to shake him down. He said Luis Santiago, city commissioner, ‘kept telling me that things were different in Opa-locka. They want money.’
‘It was a nightmare,’ said Frank Zambrana, who became an FBI informant after, he says, city officials repeatedly tried to shake him down. He said Luis Santiago, city commissioner, ‘kept telling me that things were different in Opa-locka. They want money.’

His life savings poured into his struggling business, Francisco Pujol stood in the bathroom at Opa-locka City Hall in February and turned to the lone man who could make his problems disappear.

With every cash payment to the city manager, Pujol was guaranteed he would get the occupational license that he needed to finally open.

Already, David Chiverton had dismissed dozens of code violations on the property where Pujol had set up his sprawling tire recycling center.

Now, for $2,500 — all in large bills — he would do it again.

Seizing on a program created to protect neighborhoods, Chiverton turned code violations into cash — tens of thousands a year — for himself and some of the most powerful figures in the city.

They targeted business owners with violations — junk cars, peeling paint, overgrown brush — then struck agreements with them to remove the citations for under-the-table payments.

While pressuring some violators, they dismissed fines for family members and supporters, leaving decrepit and dangerous structures across the city.

Just weeks after a code enforcement officer found a rundown building to be unsafe — the roof collapsed, a tree growing inside, and a Hooters billboard rising from the center — the case was dropped by top city officials in October.

It turned out that the building on busy Northwest 27th Avenue was owned by the husband of Opa-locka Mayor Myra Taylor.

“It’s criminal,” said Michael Young, a municipal planner and consultant on land-use issues. “You’ve got people who believe they can cut corners. It’s devastating to the entire community.”

For years, the mission of the program was to protect the “public health, safety and welfare” of the community, by safeguarding neighborhoods and cracking down on dangerous and unsightly properties.

But at every step, it was turned into a money enterprise to benefit public figures as well as owners of some of the most troubled properties in the city, records and interviews show.

 

Federal agents have already arrested two people: Chiverton and Corleon Taylor, son of the mayor, charging them with taking bribes to help lift violations and liens from business properties. Chiverton, 52, pleaded guilty and was sentenced last month to three years in prison; Taylor, 43, plans to plead guilty Thursday.

Confidential sources told the Herald that more people are under investigation, including City Commissioner Luis Santiago, 55, and Dante Starks, 54, an influential City Hall lobbyist, who are suspected of scheming with Chiverton and shaking down violators. Both did not respond to interview requests.

The revelations come as a state oversight board tries to keep the city from edging into bankruptcy and federal agents carry out a corruption probe into nearly every department in the city.

With pockets of intense poverty, Opa-locka’s code program was a lifeline to rid the community of decrepit structures and scores of weedy, barren lots that impacted property values in every corner of the city of 16,000 people.

Like most local governments, Opa-locka is empowered to place violations on properties that do not abide by the code, and if violators don’t pay the penalties, the cases are taken to a special court.

Starting in 2013, the city began to engage in a dubious practice that changed the course of the program for years to follow.

Instead of taking cases to a special master — an independent judge named by the city — local officials began to hold meetings behind closed doors with property owners in arrangements that stunned even the code inspectors.

At the center of the meetings: Chiverton and Santiago, who was directing most of the operation.

Week after week, the two would meet in corner offices at City Hall with business owners in often tense negotiations, according to city employees.

One of the owners was Frank Zambrana, 48, who first disclosed his role as an FBI informant to the Herald in April.

Twice in the first year, he met with Santiago to turn over cash bribes — $3,000 and another $500 — to get fines removed from his land where he ran a heavy equipment business, according to Zambrana.

When he didn’t pay on time, he said he would be visited by Gregory Days, the chief code enforcer, and Starks, the lobbyist.

“It was a nightmare,” he said. “[Santiago] kept telling me that things were different in Opa-locka. They want money. I just wanted to open my business.”

Chiverton’s lawyer, David Garvin, said commissioners and others frequently asked his client to settle violations — sometimes for cash, but in most cases because they wanted him to take care of complaints from landlords and others.

“There were cases in which certain commissioners and third parties did request and receive improper financial payments,” Garvin said.

In 2014, the number of code cases that Chiverton settled reached a dozen, including a controversial case involving a cramped, gated home at 2552 York St., records show.

After a burglary, code inspectors investigated what turned out to be a marijuana grow house — with dangerous, illegal hooks-ups in the electrical lines and water mains — prompting them to impose nearly a dozen violations and declaring the house unsafe.

But that year, Chiverton — then the assistant city manager — wiped out all the penalties: $85,680 in fines and liens.

In his report, Chiverton noted the reason for dismissing the case: “no supported documents to support liens.” But the Herald found just the opposite.

Not only were there a host of violations in the city’s computer, but an Opa-locka police search warrant described the elaborate grow house in detail, complete with water pumps and lights. A video even captured images of cops lugging out trash bags of pot.

Federal agents declined to discuss the case.

In 2015, Chiverton bypassed the special court at least a dozen more times — waiving more than $550,000 in fines — in a spate of deals never revealed to the public, city records show.

In the case of a decrepit home on Washington Avenue with a yard turned into an illegal dump, the penalties were slashed from $353,590 to just $10,000, with no reason given. The same with a similar residence on Burlington Street, where $59,597 in penalties were cut to $4,500.

By the time Steve Shiver arrived as the new city manager in September, he said he became alarmed at the way the deals were handled.

Just three weeks into the job, he was asked to remove tens of thousands in liens and violations on a notorious apartment complex known as The Gardens, a scourge of the neighborhood because of drug deals and shootings.

Twice, he said, he was approached by former Mayor John Riley, now a commissioner, who was working for the complex, and Starks over erasing the liens on the complex so it could be sold by the owner.

Shiver refused, saying any such deal would have to be done in public, especially because the complex had been such an eyesore. The practice of settling the fines in private, he said, was “totally illegal.”

“The city manager does not have the power to forgive a debt,” said Shiver, who was fired after he alerted the state to the city’s financial problems. Ultimately, the complex was sold for $20 million, but it’s unclear how the liens were settled: The records could not be found by the city last week.

By the start of this year, Chiverton had been promoted to city manager, and continued to arrange deals even as Opa-locka was losing massive amounts of revenue.

In February, he agreed to waive tens of thousands in fines on a gritty industrial lot that would reach the attention of federal agents. For Franciso Pujol, the deal would illustrate just how tainted the code enforcement program had grown.

The 56-year-old entrepreneur was angling to buy the land to expand his tire recycling center, but soon discovered he would have to pay more than just the cost of the property.

Chiverton informed him that he would have to come up with about $26,000 to remove outstanding fines and liens on the land — even though the penalties were imposed on the previous owner, Pujol said.

What Chiverton didn’t tell Pujol was that he had already shaken down the prior owner to remove those same penalties — for at least $5,000.

In a meeting at Chiverton’s office, Pujol agreed to pay the fines at a greatly reduced cost: $1,200, he recalled. But that was just the beginning. At Santiago’s request, Pujol would be forced to turn over $2,000 in cash for an occupational license that cost just $250.

Then, for a $400 mechanic’s license, Pujol was told to put up $10,000 in cash. “This property was like a money machine,” he said.

On Feb. 4 — three days after the liens and fines were cleared — Pujol drove to City Hall to make the first payment.

After meeting Chiverton in the hall, Pujol was led into the men’s restroom on the fourth floor. There, he counted the money — $2,500 in large bills — and handed it to Chiverton.

Moments later, Pujol bumped into Santiago in the hall and let him know he just paid the manager.

What neither public official knew: Pujol had gone to the FBI to complain about the shakedowns and was now carrying a concealed video recording device.

In addition to the bathroom scene, he had captured two other payoffs — both to Santiago, according to court records and interviews.

But it wasn’t just Pujol. At least eight other business owners, including Zambrana, had stepped forward to assist the FBI in what had now become the focus of the investigation.

In case after case, the images captured on recording devices showed thousands of dollars passed in City Hall, parking lots, businesses and a local restaurant in what would underscore just how pervasive the takeover of the code program had become.

The FBI carried out a highly publicized raid on City Hall in March, with agents hauling away more boxes of records from the code enforcement office than any other department.

Confidential sources familiar with the investigation say Santiago and others are expected to be charged, but law enforcement experts say the challenge for agents will be able to examine all the deals carried out by Chiverton and others in the past three years.

“Every single deal should be scrutinized,” said Antonio Sanchez, a former deputy chief of Opa-locka police. “How else are we going to know?”

Some members of the state oversight board want to review the operation, saying they are concerned about the way the program is run. Opa-locka leaders are still deciding cases without taking their decisions to the special master.

In August, code officers conducted an inspection of the roofless structure owned by the mayor’s husband — where homeless people were sleeping on a filthy mattress — and declared it unsafe.

The inspector imposed two citations, but on the day the case was to go to the special master in October, new City Manager Yvette Harrell dismissed them and the $1,000 in fines. The reason, she said, was the owner, John Taylor, should have been warned under the law.

For overgrown bushes — that is correct. But for unsafe structures, no warnings are needed under state law. Harrell did not respond to interview requests.

Merrett Stierheim, a former Miami-Dade county manager now advising the state board, said he’s troubled by the program and wants it taken over by a private agency. “This has been a significant source of alleged ethical misconduct,” he wrote.

One expert said he is just as concerned about the well being of the community. The role of code inspectors in impoverished neighborhoods — cracking down on dangerous buildings and other hazards — is critical to safety.

“They are even more vulnerable,” said Young, the land-use consultant. “It’s very sad. These are communities that are barely hanging in there.”

Michael Sallah: 305-376-2218, @MikeSallah7

Jay Weaver: 305-376-3446, @jayhweaver

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