When Terence Pinder ran for re-election as Opa-locka city commissioner in 2014, he acknowledged that he made mistakes that landed him on the wrong side of the law.
“All good leaders have been arrested,’’ Pinder said. “I’m wiser now and I understand that sometimes bad things happen to good people.’’
Pinder was returned to office despite arrests in 2006 and 2007 on public corruption charges. He was twice spared prison after pleading to lesser charges and getting probation. It seemed unlikely that would happen a third time.
On Tuesday, one day before he was scheduled to turn himself in to the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office on a new set of corruption charges, Pinder killed himself. Authorities said the 43-year-old city commissioner intentionally ran his car into a tree at Opa-locka Executive Airport.
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His death comes as the city faces its worst financial crisis in years, with several city officials — but apparently not Pinder — under an FBI probe. The state charges were part of yet another case prosecutors were building against Pinder, who had been involved in city politics for more than 15 years.
Pinder began his career as a public affairs director for Opa-locka, then ran unsuccessfully for city commissioner in 2002. In 2004, he formed the Opa-locka West-Side Homeowners Association and was successful in organizing a citizen’s crime watch.
He was elected commissioner in 2004 and was automatically elevated to vice mayor by garnering the top number of votes in a five-way race.
“A lot of people here unfortunately distrust politicians,’’ Pinder said at the time, noting that Opa-locka had a history of electing people who didn’t have citizens’ best interests at heart. “The days of ‘You know my mother and father and that’s why I vote for you’ are long gone.’’
But within a year, Pinder was in trouble, and within two years, he was in jail. After surviving scrutiny for arranging the hiring of a registered sex offender to a city post, he was arrested in 2006 for using city money for personal gain. Then 33, he was charged with official misconduct after spending more than $5,000 in city funds on personal expenses, including hotel stays with his girlfriend.
He was suspended from office by then-Gov. Jeb Bush, but he eventually reimbursed much of the money and paid a fine on those charges. He was arrested again in 2007 on charges that he accepted cash, hotel stays and diapers in exchange for arranging city contracts for two companies to do beautification work for the city. While out on bail, he was ordered to stay away from his ex-girlfriend, who alleged he had threatened her for talking to prosecutors in the case.
The case wasn’t settled until 2014, when Pinder and lobbyist Dante Starks took a plea deal that seemed extraordinary for the crimes they were accused of committing: Prosecutors initially alleged that Starks made almost $1 million as a lobbyist for the APAC group, Hard J. Construction and PAWA Architects and Engineers. PAWA was owned by Emmanuel Nwadike, who pleaded guilty to money-laundering charges in 2011 and, according to prosecutors, secretly gave more than $60,000 to Pinder and City Commissioner Timothy Holmes between 2004 and 2007. Holmes was not charged.
But Pinder and Starks got two years probation after pleading no contest to conflict-of-interest charges. The racketeering and unlawful-compensation counts were dropped. The two men were eligible to have their probation terminated early if the two did more than just the required community service.
At the time, Pinder — then marketing director for the Opa-locka Flea Market — was already preparing to run again for office. Pinder said he never knowingly broke the law and promised, if elected, he would focus his energies on reducing spending and improving public safety.
“We are ready to move on and get back to where the city was when I was in office,” he was quoted as saying during the election, which he won.
Within a year, however, the city was on the verge of financial collapse and the FBI had launched a criminal racketeering investigation. Pinder’s scheduled surrender, however, was not said to be related to the federal probe.