Miami Gardens - Opa-locka

Opa-locka picks commissioner with political pedigree, link to old scandal

Former Opa-lockaMayor John Riley speaks at a City Commission meeting in 2001.
Former Opa-lockaMayor John Riley speaks at a City Commission meeting in 2001. The Miami Herald

Thirty years ago, John Riley lost his mayor’s seat in Opa-locka after a police informant said he saw Riley take a $5,000 bribe from a drug-trafficking suspect to swing a vote on the city’s new flea market.

The dope dealer, Alberto San Pedro, who earned the nickname “The Great Corruptor” back then, said on an undercover police recording that he gave the money to Riley so he would steer the flea market to a location under San Pedro’s control.

Riley, who refused to testify before a Miami-Dade County grand jury without immunity, publicly denied the allegation.

While San Pedro and a handful of his associates were convicted, Riley and other politicians implicated in the state investigation were not charged as the scandal eventually imploded.

Riley tried repeatedly to regain his mayoral post and ran as well for several spots on the city commission — failing every time.

But this past week, the Opa-locka City Commission appointed Riley to fill a seat left vacant after a commissioner’s death in May. Riley easily edged out four other candidates to replace Commissioner Terence Pinder, who was facing state bribery charges when he rammed his city-issued SUV into a tree and killed himself.

Riley, a 71-year-old retired business consultant who once worked as an assistant city manager in Opa-locka government, will serve in Pinder’s seat until November, when the city holds a regular election for three open commission seats. Contacted by the Herald, Riley said he would respond to questions submitted in writing. The Herald sent the questions to him via email on Friday, but Riley did not respond.

Riley’s appointment, which prompted no discussion at last Monday’s special commission meeting, came as no surprise because he is seen as close to Mayor Myra Taylor and Vice Mayor Timothy Holmes, longtime influential Opa-locka politicians. Fellow commissioners Joseph Kelley and Luis Santiago, who both are up for election in November, joined them in selecting Riley.

“The decision to appoint him was already made before they got started — it was a done deal,” said former Vice Mayor Steven Barrett, a frequent critic of the current commission. “They needed someone who thinks like they think.”

But not everyone agrees that Riley will just go along to get along, noting his streak of independence, ambition and intimate knowledge of the city’s charter and code.

Scott Miller, who operates the sprawling Opa-locka Flea Market and once employed Riley as an assistant, called his appointment a “smart move” because he “knows a lot about the city.” Miller, asked about the past bribery allegation against Riley, said he did not think that would still hurt him. “He’s had his issues, but that’s way in the past,” Miller said.

Other observers said Riley may surprise Mayor Taylor and the other commissioners with his skeptical questions about the city’s chronic budget deficits and other persistent problems, such as unpaid water bills.

“They are going to have a rude awakening, because John Riley is his own man and they can’t control him,” said Randolph Aikens, a veteran Opa-locka code enforcement officer. “He’s looking to run in November. He doesn’t want to be tied to their mess.”

Aikens was one of the four other candidates who filed papers to fill Pinder’s commission seat. The others were Alvin Burke, a vocal critic of the commission; Rose Tydus, a former commissioner; and Ricky James, a city public works employee.

They are going to have a rude awakening, because John Riley is his own man and they can’t control him.

Randolph Aikens, veteran Opa-locka code enforcement officer

As for the “mess” that Aikens referred to: In early June, Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of financial emergency after the city commission finally acknowledged the city’s debt-ridden government desperately needed assistance from a Scott-appointed oversight board of outside experts and administrators. The city must now come up with a financial recovery plan, and all of its budget decisions will be subject to the oversight board’s approval every month.

But another threat looms over the city: For the past three years, the FBI has been investigating suspected bribery schemes and extortion rackets at almost every level of city government, leading to a federal grand jury investigation that started in April. Among the targets: City Manager David Chiverton, who is on leave; Commissioner Santiago, who has repeatedly declined to comment; and powerful lobbyist Dante Starks, who has been conspicuously absent from City Hall since FBI agents seized boxes of records from the building in March.

In addition, the Securities and Exchange Commission has opened an investigation into Opa-locka’s $8.5 million bond issues to finance last year’s purchase of its new city hall, a four-story building on Fisherman Street. The SEC’s probe is likely to expand after the Miami Herald reported last week that acting city manager Yvette Harrell tapped into a reserve fund, which was meant to guarantee payments to bond investors, to help meet the city’s payroll.

At the end of Wednesday’s regular commission meeting, Harrell condemned the Herald story as “false” and “slanderous” — yet the interim manager acknowledged she moved the money out of the reserve bond fund with the permission of Opa-locka’s bank, City National. However, Harrell did not request the commission’s approval to transfer the $600,000 into the city’s operational account.

Only one commissioner, Kelley, brought up the issue of the transfer but he did not ask Harrell why she didn’t run her plan by the commission first. Both the city’s finance director and recently fired budget director opposed it, saying the reserve bond fund was off limits.