Plundering a small town
An Opa-locka politician at the center of the FBI’s investigation into City Hall corruption surrendered on a bribery charge Friday, making him the fourth defendant to be prosecuted in the still-widening probe.
Luis Santiago, 55, lost his city commission seat in November after a series of Miami Herald stories reported he was the main target of an alleged extortion scheme involving payoffs for official favors.
News of his arrest spread quickly through Opa-locka, a poor city whose government since June has been under the control of a state oversight board that must approve all spending by the city commission due to a financial emergency. Santiago, perhaps best known around Opa-locka for sponsoring bingo nights and raising money for the city’s Fourth of July celebration, was once an influential member of the commission because of his alliance with Mayor Myra Taylor.
We want our city to be great again, and that’s not going to happen until the FBI cleans house.
Natasha Ervin, who started a community group this year calling for new, accountable leaders in Opa-locka
Santiago’s political loss to a reform-minded newcomer, coupled with his arrest in the long-running federal case, has stirred the passions of a community yearning for normalcy after years of corruption and mismanagement at City Hall.
“We want our city to be great again, and that’s not going to happen until the FBI cleans house,” said Natasha Ervin, who started a community group this year calling for new, accountable leaders in Opa-locka.
“It’s sad that they did this to our city,” said George Suarez, a catering chef who moved his family to Opa-locka last year. He said the ex-commissioner’s arrest was a “step in the right direction ... but there’s a lot still to be done because there’s so much distrust.”
After surrendering on Friday, Santiago appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge Alicia Otazo-Reyes. He was cuffed at the waist, wrists and ankles, as is customary. He pleaded not guilty and was allowed to leave after posting a $50,000 surety bond.
Santiago, a one-term commissioner who also repairs and sells cars, is accused of extorting five local businesses for thousands of dollars in exchange for helping them obtain permits, licenses and water connections between March 2014 and March 2016, when federal agents raided City Hall.
Prosecutors said Santiago directed city officials to shake down those businesses, including three business owners who worked undercover for the FBI and recorded the illicit transactions. Thousands in payoffs were made to Santiago and at least two other officials in parking lots, a City Hall bathroom, a restaurant and the former commissioner’s home, prosecutors said in a court filing.
Santiago is accused of conspiring with former City Manager David Chiverton and ex-Public Works supervisor Gregory Harris, who pleaded guilty to bribery charges soon after they surrendered to federal agents in August. Corleon Taylor, the son of Mayor Taylor and a former employee for the city’s trash contractor, also pleaded guilty.
Like the others, Santiago is expected to plead guilty to a single bribery conspiracy charge, which carries up to five years in prison. Santiago is expected to receive punishment similar to that given Chiverton, who was sentenced to three years in prison.
Here’s how the alleged bribery scheme worked: In exchange for illegal payments, Santiago directed Chiverton, Harris, and other Opa-locka employees to assist local businessmen by issuing occupational licenses, settling code enforcement liens, restoring water service and handling zoning matters.
“Santiago would make payments to Chiverton, and Santiago also would direct the paying businesses and individuals to make payments to Chiverton in exchange for the official actions taken on their behalf,” according to a charging document filed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Edward Stamm.
Among the FBI informants who paid off Santiago after he extorted them are Frank Zambrana, who operated a heavy equipment business, and Francisco Pujol, who owns a tire recycling operation. Both businessmen detailed to the Herald how Santiago, Chiverton, Harris and Corleon Taylor sought thousands in bribes so they could obtain licenses that officially should have cost hundreds of dollars.
Santiago would make payments to Chiverton, and Santiago also would direct the paying businesses and individuals to make payments to Chiverton in exchange for the official actions taken on their behalf.
From the charging document.
Santiago’s defense attorney, Roderick Vereen, said his client is accepting responsibility for his official misconduct but is not going to assist the FBI and U.S. attorney’s office in its ongoing investigation of extortion at City Hall — South Florida’s biggest public corruption case in a generation.
The lawyer confirmed that his client plans to sign a plea agreement in the future. Accompanied by Vereen, the former commissioner walked out of the courthouse after the brief hearing, sporting a gray business suit over the open-necked white dress shirt he wore in court.
“I’m going to keep serving my community. Oh, yes,” said Santiago, who flashed a smile as he walked away.