Miami Gardens - Opa-locka

Opa-locka’s ‘shadow’ force moves millions in city contracts

Dante Starks, left, Keith Carswell, center, and Bishop John Taylor, husband of Mayor Myra Taylor, speak after the Opa-locka state of the city address on Friday, Jan. 29, in Opa-locka.
Dante Starks, left, Keith Carswell, center, and Bishop John Taylor, husband of Mayor Myra Taylor, speak after the Opa-locka state of the city address on Friday, Jan. 29, in Opa-locka. skaestle@miamiherald.com

When the builder of a community center desperately needed to get paid nearly $1 million from Opa-locka, he received a call from the city’s most influential power broker.

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Dante Starks said he could ensure the contractor would collect the money he was owed and even pick up more government work.

When the CEO of a waste-hauling company needed someone with strong connections to Opa-locka leaders, he turned to Starks to ensure the firm would keep its multimillion-dollar contract with the city for years.

In a community where money begets political favors at City Hall, Starks has known few equals in pulling the levers of government.

The 53-year-old lobbyist has helped steer millions of dollars in public works projects to clients, shut down police investigations and pushed successfully for the firing of a city manager — all after his own arrest on public bribery charges nearly a decade ago.

“Dante is the unofficial mayor of Opa-locka,” former Vice Mayor Steven Barrett said. “He has more power than [Mayor] Myra Taylor. He controls every department.”

Now, Starks is at the center of a federal investigation that threatens to topple him and a cadre of elected leaders in the most comprehensive corruption probe in Miami-Dade in decades.

The Miami Herald has learned that a federal criminal grand jury has issued 18 subpoenas to current and former City Hall employees — including a former city manager and past finance director — in a kickback investigation targeting Starks and nearly every public works project in Opa-locka in the past decade.

Starks, a former Miami-Dade police sergeant who has reaped hundreds of thousands of dollars for his role in steering contracts to clients, was placed on probation two years ago in an earlier corruption scandal for allegedly paying bribes to Commissioner Terence Pinder.

Since then, Starks has drawn the attention of federal agents for even more dealings, including alleged bribes paid between him and city commissioners and top administrators who were captured on secret tape recordings and videos, according to confidential sources.

Other targets include City Commissioner Luis Santiago and Daniel Abia, a longtime public works manager who now heads the building department.

Sources said FBI agents are examining “phantom” jobs created in the public works department as well as irregular bidding involving the city’s best-known development — the $4.3 million Sherbondy Village community center — a project rife with improper dealings in which Starks was a lobbyist.

So powerful was Starks over the years that he flouted local laws by failing to register as a lobbyist — until four months ago —while representing businesses with some of the largest government contracts in the impoverished city. He has also raised thousands of dollars for political campaigns to help commissioners get elected.

Despite repeated efforts by the Miami Herald, Starks did not respond to interview requests. Neither Santiago nor Abia returned calls.

Known for his brash style, Starks’ capacity to stay in power even after his prior conviction underscores his ability to manipulate the gears of government, working behind the scenes to pit one commissioner against another or threatening to line up votes to fire city managers.

A passionate speaker during commission meetings, he sometimes berates elected leaders over their actions, or heaps praise on them — all the while rousing citizens in the audience and sending a clear message of who is in charge.

“He’s got everyone thinking that he controls everything,” said former City Manager Steve Shiver, who was hired in September after he was contacted by Starks on behalf of the City Commission. “He’s got people planted all over.”

In a letter warning the Florida governor’s office of the city’s mushrooming economic crisis last fall, Shiver raised concerns not only about millions in debts but what he called “a shadow government” of outside forces — a direct reference to Starks.

In an interview, Shiver said he was struck by Starks’ frequent presence at City Hall, where he roams the halls, stops into offices to bark orders at department directors and even barges into the city manager’s office in the midst of meetings. His longtime girlfriend and the mother of his children, Kiera Ward, is the city human resources director.

Tom Marko, a former county budget analyst who was hired by Shiver in September, said he saw Starks at City Hall so often he thought he worked there — until he asked another employee. “He had no official power and yet he was essentially running things,” Marko said.

Added former City Clerk Deborah Sheffield Irby: “Did I ever wonder why he was there? Of course I did. ... He wasn’t there almost every day for nothing.”

A Carol City High School graduate who lives in Miami Gardens, Starks entered the “street politics” of Miami-Dade as an aide to former County Commissioner Dorrin Rolle — a career launched after Starks was forced to resign as a Miami-Dade policeman in 1997 over a host of sexual harassment complaints from female officers.

The connections he forged under Rolle — who was ultimately defeated for re-election in 2010 after the bankruptcy of his nonprofit social services agency — exposed him to the world of county lobbying and dealmaking required to land federal and state government contracts.

He quickly aligned himself with one of Opa-locka’s up-and-coming politicians, Terence Pinder, in a relationship that allowed both to tap into those contracts while trampling on the laws that regulate public funding.

For two years, Commissioner Pinder steered lucrative contracts to the contractors represented by Starks — money totaling $7.2 million in 2006 and 2007 to repair water lines, sewage pumps and roads.

In one year alone, Starks took in $465,000 in fees, while delivering envelopes stuffed with cash to Pinder and paying for the commissioner to stay at El Palacio Hotel and Resort in Miami Gardens. Starks even paid for the diapers for Pinder’s girlfriend’s children, records show.

Ultimately, both men were arrested in 2007 on a variety of corruption charges, including unlawful compensation. Not until 2014 — seven years later — did they reach a deal that allowed them to plead no contest to conflict-of-interest charges, leading to probation with no jail time. The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s office said the case unraveled when two key witnesses, including a disgraced city engineer, were deemed unreliable.

For seven years, Pinder was forced to stay out of office after his suspension by Gov. Jeb Bush. But Starks continued to roam City Hall in a string of controversial deals that cost Opa-locka hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Again and again, Starks appeared before the City Commission, lobbying on behalf of business contractors, thrusting himself in police affairs and getting jobs for friends in the public works department.

“He emerged even stronger,” observed Alvin Burke, a longtime city activist. “He would tell everybody in Opa-locka that if you want anything done, contact him, he could make it happen.”

While still facing the bribery charges, Starks took part in the city’s development of the Sherbondy Village community center, a two-story facility with a gymnasium and 250-seat theater that drew the attention of county ethics investigators and now, the FBI.

At first, the contractor hired to put up the center agreed to pay Starks $15,000 as a lobbyist at the behest of a partner in the venture, Henry Crespo, a former Opa-locka housing chief.

Crespo touted Starks as a “key leader in the city [who] ran the streets,” according to a county ethics report. But instead of paying Starks directly, the lobbyist arranged for the checks to be signed over to a company founded by a former city manager, Eddie Brown Jr.

In the ensuing months, a crisis unfolded that underscored Starks’ ability to exploit his ties to City Hall and press for even more money from the contractor. Shortly after the city fell behind on its payments to the builder, Starks came up with a plan.

“I hear you’re having some money problems,” Starks told the project manager, who was about to stop work on the center. Starks proposed the company give him $35,000 and he would use his influence at City Hall to make sure the builder was paid the money due: $900,000.

Rather than pay Starks, the project manager called for an urgent meeting with Miami-Dade prosecutors. County ethics investigators described the project as “tainted” and orchestrated by “unscrupulous firms and individuals,” but no criminal charges were filed.

While still under a cloud of suspicion, Starks thrust himself in the middle of another issue, but this time, it had nothing to do with government contracts.

For days, police commanders had been conducting an investigation into a sergeant for allegedly fabricating evidence against fellow officers in internal affairs cases in 2012. After Starks found out, he stormed into then-Chief Cheryl Cason’s office, demanding she shut it down. Michael Steel, the suspect, had been hired by a prior Opa-locka chief who was close to Starks — the two had worked together in the Miami-Dade Police Department years earlier, records and interviews show.

After Cason refused, Starks took his case to the highest level of government, prompting top administrators to end the case and allow Steel to keep his badge and gun. He would now be assigned to City Hall as the sergeant-at-arms.

Months later, another case unfolded that turned into a confrontation between Starks and a deputy police chief and, ultimately, reached the attention of the FBI.

Shortly after police began investigating a street minister with a long criminal history who was suspected of selling drugs, Starks went to Chief Cason again to drop the inquiry. Once again, Cason rebuffed Starks, leading to harsh words in the police station between Starks and Deputy Chief Antonio Sanchez.

The next day, City Manager Kelvin Baker called police and asked that they back off, records and interviews show.

In the ensuing years, Starks continued to cultivate a network of city leaders, including Mayor Myra Taylor, her husband, Bishop John Taylor, and Santiago, a newly elected commissioner. Starks was also instrumental in recruiting several top administrators.

But the man who became his choice for the city manager’s job last year turned out to be his greatest adversary: Steve Shiver, a former Homestead mayor and county manager.

Just weeks after commissioners voted 3-2 to hire the new city manager in September, Starks soon learned that Shiver was less compliant than his predecessors.

Starks asked the manager to stop demanding rent from the academy school inside City Hall — a school that already owed the city at least $400,000 in past rent. The city manager said no.

Starks asked Shiver to pay a sewer contractor $272,000 for work that was never approved by the City Commission. The manager said no again.

Starks asked the manager to forgive $10,000 in code enforcement fines to a wealthy apartment complex owner. Again, Shiver refused.

By the end of October, their differences would erupt at a public business forum in Opa-locka where Shiver was the guest speaker. Just moments after his speech, Shiver said he encountered Starks and told him to “stop stirring the pot.”

As the crowd looked on, Starks tore into Shiver, pushing him and cursing, Shiver said. Rather than counter Starks, the manager said he walked away.

In the ensuing weeks, Starks drew on the same power he assembled to hire Shiver — this time, to fire him, while Shiver, in turn, issued an order to staffers: Starks needs to register as a lobbyist, or stay out of City Hall.

Shiver fired off an email to the head of a New York company that handled the city’s garbage collections and retained Starks as a $5,000-a-month lobbyist. The city manager reminded the CEO of Universal Waste Services that Starks was not registered.

“The people of Opa-locka deserve better,” Shiver wrote to Universal’s Joseph Spiezio, whose firm hired Starks nine months earlier to help get an extension on its three-year, $7 million contract.

As the friction escalated, Starks formally submitted his paperwork to legally lobby, with Universal paying the $300 fee, records show.

Starks, however, struck back: He mobilized Mayor Taylor and Santiago to fire Shiver from his $150,000 job in late November, with Starks watching from the audience.

Moments later, as Shiver returned to his office to clean out his desk, Starks fired one more round. He called Michael Steel, the sergeant-at-arms, on his phone and ordered him to block Shiver from entering.

With the city on the edge of bankruptcy, Shiver’s termination sent the city into even greater chaos. Miami-Dade officials moved to audit the city’s shattered finances. State officials gauged whether to take over the city budget.

With city workers fretting over their future, Mayor Taylor assured a gathering at her state-of-the-city address in late January that Opa-locka’s “unwise decisions” and “difficult times” were behind them. “You can’t stop a moving train,” she said.

Six weeks later as she pulled up in her car to City Hall, the entire building was surrounded by dozens of FBI agents on a public corruption task force. For most of the day, the federal agents hauled away boxes of records, computer hard drives, emails and other evidence in a scene that spectators said resembled a Hollywood movie.

While agents questioned Mayor Taylor and other public officials, Starks was not around.

That morning, just as federal agents arrived at City Hall, he left through a rear door.

Michael Sallah: 305-376-3741, @MikeSallah7

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