Miami Gardens - Opa-locka

Grand jury launches corruption probe of Opa-locka

Opa-Locka Mayor Myra Taylor, with her husband Bishop John Taylor, during the state of the city address in January. The mayor is now a target of a criminal investigation.
Opa-Locka Mayor Myra Taylor, with her husband Bishop John Taylor, during the state of the city address in January. The mayor is now a target of a criminal investigation. The Miami Herald

One of the witnesses is an obscure Opa-locka administrator. Another is a veteran city inspector. Yet another is a longtime police officer.

They share something in common: Prosecutors believe they have witnessed a host of crimes in a community painted as a city for sale — with payoffs and cover-ups that reach into every level of government.

In the widest public corruption case in Miami-Dade in years, the city workers are among 20 witnesses who will testify Thursday before a federal grand jury that is probing kickbacks, extortion and a host of other organized schemes carried out by the city’s most powerful leaders.

For the first time, jurors will hear evidence of bribery payoffs and shakedowns in cars, restaurants and businesses in scenes captured on video recording devices. Several politicians and staffers are expected to be indicted after prosecutors present FBI evidence gathered over the past three years.

Among the criminal targets: Acting City Manager David Chiverton, Mayor Myra Taylor, City Commissioner Luis Santiago and longtime City Hall lobbyist Dante Starks.

“It’s been a long time coming,” said Natasha Ervin, a local activist. “We need answers right now, and we’re not getting any answers. At the end of the day, the citizens pay for it all.”

The federal investigation of Opa-locka has been unfolding publicly for weeks, beginning with a dramatic raid at City Hall last month by dozens of federal agents who hauled away boxes of public documents and computer hard drives.

Then there was the surprise release of the grand jury’s confidential witness list — sent in an email blast to every Opa-locka government employee by City Attorney Vince Brown, who said it was an accident.

Federal authorities have declined to comment on the breach other than to say the investigation will continue unimpeded, beginning with a grand jury expected to probe massive kickback schemes tied to some of the city’s most high-profile projects.

The investigation begins nearly three years after the owner of a large storage facility stepped forward and pleaded with federal agents for help after he was ordered to pay bribes to city inspectors to keep operating, according to sources familiar with the investigation.

In time, investigators uncovered what amounted to an alleged criminal enterprise carried out by a cadre of code inspectors and public works employees demanding payoffs from business owners — using police officers as enforcers — in shakedowns reminiscent of large urban cities.

Sources told the Miami Herald that in other instances, city commissioners took part in kickback schemes, including receiving illegal payments from city administrators for large government contracts.

Chiverton, who has been the city manager since late November, declined to comment. Santiago, elected as a commissioner in 2014, and Starks, the lobbyist, did not respond to repeated interview requests. Mayor Taylor has previously denied any wrongdoing.

One of the key projects under review: the $4.3 million Sherbondy Village community center. The two-story complex with a 250-seat auditorium was riddled with improper dealings, prompting Miami-Dade officials to cut off millions in funding in 2010.

One veteran builder complained the bidding for the project was so irregular that city officials changed the rules before the construction job was awarded to the city’s former housing chief — for $1.2 million higher than the lowest bid.

Henry Louden said when he showed up at City Hall with his bid offer, he was told he didn’t have the proper identification. When he returned to City Hall with his paperwork, a clerk said he was one minute late and refused to accept the bid.

Louden said he was stunned by the process, vowing “never again” to participate in an Opa-locka project. The corruption, he told the Herald, was “so deep.”

The lobbyist for the project: Starks, who was already facing state bribery charges in an unrelated Opa-locka case in which he steered millions to private contractors.

For his role in the Sherbondy Village project, he promised the builder that he could speed up late payments from the city for a $35,000 fee.

Another controversial player in the project was Opa-locka code enforcement officer Randolph Aikens, whose security company was hired at about $10,000 a month to guard the center, according to a county ethics report. Aikens was subpoenaed to appear before the grand jury.

Of all the city departments, the one that’s expected to draw the most attention is public works — a haven for part-time and “phantom” jobs — where dozens of people took in pay checks but did not show up to work, according to sources familiar with the investigation.

While the city was losing more than $1 million in water and sewer bill collections, public works employees were secretly gouging customers.

Employees would shut off the water of those who didn’t pay their bills. Then, for under-the-table payments, city workers agreed to turn the water back on.

Several members of the department are under scrutiny, including administrator Gregory Harris, who was questioned by FBI agents during the City Hall raid in March. Another in the spotlight: Daniel Abia, former public works director who now heads the building department.

When contacted by phone, Harris refused to answer questions and hung up. Abia said he had not engaged in any wrongdoing.

They did not receive subpoenas, but others familiar with their work are expected to testify. They include Delia Rosa Kennedy and Airia Austen, administrators who overseas tens of millions in government grants used for aging sewer and water systems — the most exploited contracts over the years, federal records state.

Another is Kiera Ward, the city’s human resources director who is the girlfriend of Starks, the powerful lobbyist who was sentenced to probation just two years ago in the state case.

Also testifying: Susan Gooding-Liburd, a former finance director who resigned last summer, just as the city was falling deeper into debt, and her successor, Charmaine Parchment, now at the center of Opa-locka’s financial crisis.

Policeman Hassan Hosein, code enforcement supervisor Wilma Wilcox, and building and licensing inspector Arshad Viqar are expected to shed light on extortion schemes carried out by city workers, sources said.

One of the most crucial witnesses: Nelson Rodriguez, the city information technology director who is helping the FBI sort through a massive paper trail of emails and other records left by commissioners and Mayor Taylor.

For residents, the grand jury proceeding might finally expose what they have long suspected At City Hall: pervasive corruption.

“We’ve always known something in the city wasn’t right,” said Opa-locka civic activist Alvin Burke.

Chris Roberts, another activist who frequently attends commission meetings, said she hopes the investigation will rid the city of its problems and allow residents to gain trust in their elected leaders. “If it takes all the bad guys to go to prison, that’s where they have to go.”

This article has been updated.

Jay Weaver: 305-376-3446, @jayhweaver

Herald reporter Katie Lepri contributed to this report.