Just after sunset, Commissioner Luis Santiago pulled up to the gates of the sprawling storage lot in Opa-locka and motioned for Frank Zambrana to step inside the black, city-leased Ford Expedition.
The two had met privately before, but this time it was different.
With a handgun on the console, Santiago reached over to his passenger and frisked him for any recording devices.
“He told me that he was not going to take any chances,” Zambrana said.
With no one else in sight, Zambrana said he took out $500, counted it, then passed it to the 55-year-old politician in yet another secret payment to ensure Zambrana would get a license to open his heavy equipment business in 2013.
It wasn’t the last payment he would have to make for a license that cost just $150.
In the past three years, the father of five paid tens of thousands of dollars to Santiago and a host of other prominent city officials in what exposed an organized network that turned the levers of government into a cash generator for themselves and others, the Miami Herald has learned.
After months of making under-the-table payments for a business license, Zambrana turned to the FBI.
In one of the most compelling public corruption cases in Miami-Dade in years, Zambrana taped secret meetings while he paid cash bribes to public officials in City Hall, at remote parking lots and even in a popular night spot, according to confidential sources.
Zambrana is among the lead figures in a grand jury investigation that could result in the indictment of at least a dozen people, including Santiago and City Manager David Chiverton, on racketeering charges, according to sources who spoke to the Herald on the condition of anonymity.
“I knew it was bad, but I didn’t know it was that bad,” said Steven Barrett, a former vice mayor who once sued the city over questionable billing practices for water and sewer services. “This city is run like the mob.”
So pervasive were the underhanded methods at City Hall that other Opa-locka business owners outraged over being extorted joined Zambrana and became informants for the FBI, three of those witnesses told the Herald.
One 56-year-old man who runs a recycling business said he stepped forward in 2015 after he was shaken down twice by city officials to pay thousands of dollars for a license that should have cost $250.
At first, he wrote a $3,000 check to Corleon Taylor, the 35-year-old son of Mayor Myra Taylor, to get a license in 2012. Then, he met with Chiverton in a bathroom in City Hall three months ago and turned over $3,000 to the city manager — all in $100 bills — for the same permit.
“When does it stop?” the businessman’s wife told the Herald. “You have to pay everyone around here.”
Chiverton, 51, who was questioned by FBI agents last month, declined to discuss the probe other than to say he was “not going to be put in a corner. You’re trying to put me in a box. There’s an investigation going on.”
Santiago, who filed for bankruptcy last year while facing federal tax liens totaling $138,000, said he has not yet been confronted by investigators.
“The only people I talk to are my family and God,” he said.
For years, Opa-locka has endured scandals, including a massive scheme charged in 2007 that led to the convictions of current Commissioner Terence Pinder, City Hall lobbyist Dante Starks and a city engineer over hundreds of thousands of dollars in kickbacks from sewer repair contracts.
But the current FBI probe represents a far more extensive corruption case that touches on nearly every level of government.
For the 47-year-old Zambrana, the investigation took place during a difficult and at times emotional period for him and his wife when their 18-year-old son was dying of cancer and another committed suicide at the age of 21.
Because he could not get a license for 18 months, Zambrana was forced to shut down his business in 2015 after losing nearly all his savings, he told the Herald in a series of interviews.
“They left a mark on my life that I will never forget,” he said. “They never even thought about what they were doing to me. The only way I can describe them is monsters.”
Zambrana said he opened his operation four years ago to realize a dream of running a major enterprise: repairing and selling farm machinery. Since arriving from Nicaragua 24 years ago, he faced many challenges, including minor brushes with the law as a young immigrant. But for nearly two decades, he has lived a clean life.
“I just wanted a chance,” he said.
Within months of signing a lease in 2012, Zambrana said he was ordered by a code enforcement officer to get an occupational license in order to store tractors, trucks and equipment on the five-acre lot off Northwest 141st Street.
After filling out applications — six separate times — he went to City Hall to resolve the problem, and was met by Commissioner Santiago in what would begin a series of encounters that eventually led to the FBI sting.
“He said to me, ‘I hear you have a big problem with getting your license,’’’ Zambrana said. “I can help you.”
While walking through the lobby, Santiago pointed to his picture on the wall with the other commissioners and mayor. “ ‘Wow,’ I said to myself. ‘He’s a very important man.’”
Because he was desperate to start his business, Rhino Parts & Equipment Inc., on the land he was leasing, Zambrana said he agreed to pay Santiago $3,000.
But Zambrana soon learned he was not going to get his license.
Again and again, he pleaded with Santiago to help him, partly because he was getting into trouble with the city’s code enforcement chief, Gregory Days, who threatened to shut him down because he continued to store equipment on the property.
Days, 63, told the Herald he didn’t know Zambrana and didn’t bring enforcement actions against the business. He said he was not involved in any illegal activities.
“I have never, ever taken anything from anyone in the city of Opa-locka,” said Days, who spent most of his career with the city of Miami.
After calling Santiago to complain, Zambrana said he was warned: Don’t ever talk about money on the phone. “He said to me, ‘I’m a commissioner. Do you think anyone is going to believe you?’’’ Zambrana said.
After making one more payment to Santiago for $800 and another to lobbyist Dante Starks for $500, Zambrana said he had enough.
He went to the FBI.
His visit to the Miami field office in 2013 would trigger the most comprehensive corruption probe in Miami-Dade since the 1990s, revealing for the first time city workers creating their own illegal enterprises, including inflating the cost of licenses and collecting thousands in water fees from customers and not turning the money over to the city.
In some cases, city officials directed code inspectors and police officers to pressure people to make payments, Zambrana and other informants told the Herald.
Armed with a secret video recording device from the FBI, Zambrana agreed to meet Santiago at the business in what would signal the beginning of the federal sting. Tucked inside Zambrana’s pocket: $500 in FBI money.
When he jumped into Santiago’s city-issued SUV, Zambrana said he spotted a gun on the console. He said the commissioner immediately reached over and searched him for a possible wire, but the commissioner didn’t find the carefully concealed camera, Zambrana said.
“I didn’t know if this guy was going to shoot me,” Zambrana said.
After waiting a couple of hours, Starks showed up driving a beige Cadillac and took $500 from Zambrana, the business owner said.
The image of Starks, 53, who introduced himself as “Pulpo,” a Spanish word for Octopus, was the first person captured on video taking cash. Starks did not respond to repeated interview requests.
Days later, Zambrana said Santiago approached him again, this time demanding $2,900. Zambrana said it would take another day to get the money and returned to his FBI handlers.
This time, the FBI wanted Zambrana to let the city officials occasionally know he was now dealing in drugs, so it would lead them to believe there was plenty more money.
The next day, Commissioner Santiago showed up at the business with his wife in the black SUV. Moments later, Zambrana slipped him the money — all in $100 bills.
“He told me, ‘This time for sure. I am going to get your license,’’’ Zambrana said.
But after two months, Zambrana had still not been approved, prompting him once again to drive to City Hall to meet with Santiago.
Shortly after arriving, Zambrana said he was ushered into an office by the commissioner to meet with one of the city’s most amiable leaders: David Chiverton, then assistant city manager.
After greeting Zambrana, Chiverton recited a litany of problems about the property before concluding that he, too, would need to be paid, Zambrana said.
After talking it over with his FBI handlers, Zambrana said he returned the next day with $3,000 and handed it — in $100 bills — to Chiverton in his office in what was supposed to be the final payment for his license.
Along the way, the pressure brought by his own crisis with the illness of his 18-year-old son and the investigation was starting to wear on Zambrana, he said. He would go home, he said, and argue with his wife over his involvement in the sting operations. At one point, he was forced to borrow his son’s disability payments totaling $9,400 to cover the back rent on the business property.
Days, the code enforcement chief, had already imposed thousands of dollars in fines on the property for storing vehicles and not making repairs to the lone building, records show.
During one angry exchange, Zambrana said Days flashed a code enforcement badge and threatened to call U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “He told me, ‘I am the law. You are someone who just crossed the border,’” Zambrana said.
In another encounter, Days called the police and threatened to put Zambrana in jail and then phoned Starks. Days then passed the phone to Zambrana. “[Starks] told me, ‘You see, I am not playing.”
One of the most dangerous moments happened in City Hall when Zambrana entered an office where Santiago and Starks were waiting for him.
Immediately, one of them turned on a radio and cranked up the volume, while Starks, a former Miami-Dade police sergeant, startled Zambrana by circling behind him, yanking up his shirt and patting him down. He found nothing. Before leaving, Zambrana counted out $2,800 to Santiago, he said
“They really scared me that time,” he said.
Later, he said he received a call from Chiverton in a brazen demand that would raise the ante of the bribes to a new level.
The assistant city manager claimed he had just received a phone call from federal agents who were looking for Zambrana to investigate his immigration status. Zambrana, a lawful resident, said he knew it was a ploy to gouge him for more money. “I’ve lived here for 24 years,” he said.
Chiverton said he could resolve the problem, but demanded the largest bribe yet: $25,000. He said Chiverton bragged about being close to U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and that he had attended barbecues with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. “I can send a couple of letters and you will become a citizen,” Zambrana said he was told.
After sharing the story with the FBI, Zambrana said he was told by the agents the claims were not true and that no money would be handed over in what was now turning into an even larger investigation.
Just weeks later, the mayor’s son turned up at Zambrana’s door. He had known Corleon Taylor for several years, but he didn’t expect him to be a part of the shakedowns. “I said to myself, ‘Please don’t ask me for money.’”
But he did, prompting Zambrana to turn on the video device to record every word.
Taylor said he could use his influence at City Hall to finally get the license, Zambrana said. The next day, Zambrana said he met the mayor’s son behind a boat stored on his property to count the cash — $3,000.
Corleon, who works for the city’s garbage contractor, Universal Waste Services, declined to comment.
By the time Zambrana had been shaken down by four people, he and the FBI found the web of extortion was far larger than they had suspected.
During a year of carrying out the sting, Zambrana said he discovered nearly a dozen other business owners were also being shaken down.
“They were scared to death,” he said.
The man who owned a recycling business complained that Santiago demanded $2,500 to help him get a business license that only cost $250. So he agreed to be wired by the FBI.
In the ensuing year, he recorded four payoffs to the commissioner for $1,000 each, and an additional $2,500 to Chiverton, said the owner, who asked not be identified because he feared for his safety.
While Zambrana and the recycle company owner were paying bribes, they were also forced to confront another ongoing scheme that would expand the federal investigation.
The public works department was cutting off their water services, and then agreeing to reconnect the water if the customers turned over $250 each. Zambrana said the public works director, Gregory Harris, kept his own ledger of customers who were supposed to pay him in the illegal enterprise.
At one time, former Deputy Police Chief Antonio Sanchez ordered an investigation into the scheme, but a move by police to charge the public works employees was blocked by top administrators.
The scheme took place at a time when the city was struggling in one of the worst economic crises in its history, driven partly by hundreds of unpaid water accounts totaling more than $1 million, records show. Reached by phone, Harris, 51, declined to comment.
Before it all ended, there was one more payment — $500 to Santiago over a table in a well-known restaurant and bar, Mama Dolores.
After doling out nearly $30,000 in nearly two years, Zambrana said he was finally handed his business license by Chiverton last year.
By then, it was too late. He had already incurred heavy debts and was pulling out of Opa-locka. His son Andy had undergone long bouts of chemotherapy, and his oldest son, Christian, had committed suicide.
Throughout the ordeal, Zambrana said he drank heavily, couldn’t sleep and struggled with keeping his family together. He said he recalled many nights returning to his North Miami home after his wife and children had already gone to sleep. “I couldn’t give my kids what they deserved,” Zambrana said.
One of the most gratifying moments took place when the Make-A-Wish Foundation paid for a trip to Rome for Zambrana and his sons in August 2014. While gathered in St. Peter’s Square, he and Andy met for 20 minutes with Pope Francis. “It was one of the happiest moments of my life,” said Zambrana, whose son ultimately died on Feb. 14, 2016.
All along, he said, if not for his FBI handlers, he would have lost control. “They were there for me,” he said. “I don’t know what I would have done without them. They went to the hospital to see Andy. They brought us food.”
The FBI would not comment on the investigation.
For Zambrana, the only compensation for the time he lost from his family will come if the men who treated him and others so badly are brought to justice. “I want them to feel what I felt. I want them to know what I went through.
“I’m not blaming them for the death of my children,” he said. “I blame them because they didn’t give me a chance to work and take care of my family.”
Michael Sallah: 305-962-2218, @MikeSallah7
Jay Weaver: 305-376-3446, @jayhweaver