Miami Gardens - Opa-locka

Contractor claims Opa-locka manager Steve Shiver sought bribe

Then Miami-Dade County Manager Steve Shiver speaking with Opa-locka Mayor Myra Taylor on a tour of the city in 2001.
Then Miami-Dade County Manager Steve Shiver speaking with Opa-locka Mayor Myra Taylor on a tour of the city in 2001. Miami Herald File

Just one month after his hiring, Opa-locka City Manager Steve Shiver — the focus of spending audits and ethical scrutiny in assorted past government dealings — has been accused of trying to shake down a local contractor.

George Howard, in a letter obtained by the Miami Herald, contends Shiver solicited a $150,000 bribe in exchange for the city paying his final invoice for work on a sewer project —a $272,000 bill that the manager and Opa-locka City Commission have previously refused to pay.

Howard, president of United States Association of CDC, wrote the Oct. 16 letter after he met with Shiver to demand payment for the pump station project, claiming the manager “expressly stated” that it could only be made if Howard paid a kickback to Mayor Myra Taylor. She was the only commissioner who voted to pay Howard’s final bill last week.

“Upon hearing your insidious requests, I emphatically stated that not one cent of this money would be given to the mayor,” Howard wrote in the letter, which was copied to the mayor, city commissioners and building director. “Such an act would be blatantly illegal and would in no way be something that my company or I would ever be a party to.”

Shiver, a former Homestead mayor and one-time Miami-Dade County manager, declined to comment about Howard’s bribery allegation. “Unfortunately, I can't talk about it, but it will all come out in the end,” he told the Miami Herald. Taylor, the mayor, did not return calls or emails seeking comment.

Adding to the intrigue in a city infamous for financial and political chicanery: Court records show the accuser has a checkered financial and legal history himself. Howard, who lives in Pembroke Pines, has been sued several times since South Florida’s real estate market collapsed — leading to judgments against him for failing to repay hundreds of thousands of dollars in mortgage loans,failing to pay rent as a tenant in two Miami-Dade office buildings and passing a bad check to an insurance company.

In an interview at a 48-unit apartment complex his company has been renovating in Opa-locka, Howard reiterated his allegation, saying Shiver was explicit about the bribe request in their Sept. 24 meeting at City Hall. “I stand by the letter 1,000 percent,” he said. “If I had gone to the mayor and complained about what he said, she would have thrown me out of her office. That’s why I put it in writing ... The city manager must answer for what he did.”

Howard — who noted in his letter that Shiver asked a subcontractor in the meeting to leave so he could discuss the alleged bribe attempt — said he has not filed a formal complaint with local, state or federal authorities.

Since last year, Miami-Dade County government has been pursuing a foreclosure action against one of Howard’s companies, Opa Lakes Development, and other parties for their failure to repay a $2.52 million low-interest loan that was meant for the renovation of the complex at 2491 NW 135th St., near the pump station. Howard’s construction crew has almost completed the residential project, including a new coat of orange and rust paint, tile floors, white windows, household appliances, water heaters and electrical wiring.

The four-story building, bound by a tall white fence facing Opa-locka Boulevard and a canal in the back, should be ready for occupancy by the end of the year, according to Howard. Seventy potential tenants are on a waiting list. He said once he receives an occupancy permit, the now-completed pump station can service the building.

“I’m trying to build a community here where people can feel safe, go to work and raise their families,” Howard said.

In a response to the county’s suit, Howard said his rental project was stalled for months because Opa-locka officials “continuously imposed” changes in the pump station project — a dispute that is at the root of the dispute over the final bill.

Shiver, unlike Howard, has been a public figure for more than two decades.

In early September, Shiver was hired as city manager of Opa-locka in a 3-2 vote, with the mayor supporting his appointment. Although he has never been sanctioned for ethics violations or charged with any wrongdoing, Shiver brought plenty of baggage from his previous experiences in city government in Homestead and as Miami-Dade County manager.

He served as county manager from 2001 to 2003 in the administration of then-Mayor Alex Penelas, after spending four years as Homestead’s mayor from 1997 to 2001. He was first elected to the city council in 1993.

A 2010 county audit cited Shiver’s role as a private businessman in dealings with the Homestead Community Redevelopment Agency, which was established after Hurricane Andrew ravaged the region nearly two decades earlier. Auditors found the agency squandered millions of dollars in taxpayer dollars with nothing to show for the spending.

In 2007, Shiver convinced the Homestead CRA to pay $1.9 million to a company with whom he worked to acquire 4.2 acres of depressed real estate known as “shotgun property,” according to the audit. The land was covered with small, rundown “shotgun-style” homes. The audit found the sales price for the homes was more than market value, the houses were eventually demolished and the land was not developed.

The CRA had borrowed the money from Homestead to purchase the land and planned to repay the loan with proceeds from the sale of another property, a blighted bowling alley outside the CRA district. Shiver, then representing an investment firm, offered the city $500,000 for the bowling alley property, which was appraised at $2.6 million in 2012. After residents complained, Shiver and the firm dropped their bid.

He defended his actions in a past interview with the Herald: “We did things that were exactly what the city wanted to do at the time.”

The latest allegation lodged against Shiver, accusing him of soliciting a bribe from Howard, arises from a sewer project with a messy history.

In 2012-13, the city gave Howard a $450,000 contract to rehabilitate the pump station #5 at 2332 NW 135th St., which was designed to serve not only the immediate neighborhood but also his renovation of the nearby apartment complex. Howard said he took on the sewer project so he could make progress on his building.

Howard said city officials later ordered changes that added $272,000 to the total cost — a claim that Shiver has strongly disputed at two public meetings this fall. City records show that additional work was needed because of soil conditions, a sinkhole and rerouting of manholes. But it’s unclear whether Opa-locka officials ever signed off on any changes to the original project, which was completed earlier this year.

Howard detailed those changes in an invoice and discussed them at the public meetings. But the city commission rejected the contractor’s demand for payment. On Oct. 14, the commission voted 4-1 not to pay him, based on advice from Shiver and the city attorney. The mayor was Howard’s only vote of support.

“If we can offset a lawsuit, let’s see if we can,” Taylor said at a late September meeting. “At least talk to them.”

Now, Howard seems to be leaning toward legal action against the city. His letter concluded: “In consideration of these extremely unusual and illegal actions addressed in this letter, as of today, you and the city of Opa-locka are hereby on notice that the USACDC’s next communication to your office will be from my attorney.”

Miami Herald staff writer Michael Sallah contributed to this report.