A longtime Opa-locka manager who oversaw the city’s troubled public works department was charged Thursday in the first federal corruption case brought by prosecutors after a three-year FBI investigation into alleged bribery schemes at the highest levels of government.
Gregory Harris, who resigned this week as assistant director of public works, is accused of conspiring with a city commissioner, city manager and other employees to extort thousands of dollars in cash payments from Opa-locka business owners seeking occupational licenses, water connections and other permits.
The 44-year-old North Miami resident was charged by “information,” which means he is cooperating with the U.S. attorney’s office and the FBI in the sprawling corruption probe and is expected to plead guilty to a conspiracy in the future. Harris plans to surrender to authorities Friday for his first appearance in Fort Lauderdale federal court.
His defense attorney, Nathan Diamond, declined to comment about his client, who also is pastor of an Opa-locka church and leads Bible studies.
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Harris agreed to help FBI agents with their investigation in March, when authorities led a dramatic raid on Opa-locka City Hall to seize public records, financial documents and other evidence. Harris is accused of conspiring with “Public Official A” and “Public Official B” in the bribery scheme from March 2014 to March 10, 2016, the day of the raid.
The following month, the Miami Herald published a detailed story on how Harris and other top city officials shook down business owners who were working undercover for the FBI in a series of backroom bribes recorded on video. The investigation is among the largest corruption probes in South Florida history.
Although the two officials are not identified by name, the Herald has learned that one of the public officials is City Commissioner Luis Santiago and the other is former City Manager David Chiverton, who resigned on Monday after taking a three-month leave of absence for “personal reasons.” A longtime Miami resident who once ran for the City Commission, Chiverton previously worked as an assistant city manager in Opa-locka.
Chiverton’s defense attorney, David Garvin, told the Miami Herald that the 51-year-old administrator plans to surrender to agents on Monday, noting he has been cooperating with the FBI and prosecutor Edward Stamm, and plans to accept responsibility for his conspiracy charge involving bribery.
“He tried to do a good job, but he got caught in a situation where he faced enormous pressure from elected officials,” Garvin said. “He couldn’t get out of the way and still have a job. It’s sad, but that’s where it ended up.”
According to information filed in federal court, Harris conspired with Public Official A, Public Official B and other government employees “to unlawfully enrich themselves by using their official positions and authority within the city of Opa-locka to solicit, demand and obtain payments and other things of value from businesses and individuals in exchange for taking official actions to assist and benefit [them].”
Public Official A, Santiago, solicited and obtained “illegal payments” from businesses and individuals who were seeking occupational licenses and other permits for their properties in 2014 and 2015.
In exchange for cash bribes, Santiago directed Harris and other Opa-locka employees to take care of the requests for occupational licenses, water connections, zoning benefits and code enforcement violations, according to the information. Neither Santiago nor his defense lawyer, Rod Vereen, responded to interview requests.
Public Official B, Chiverton, also solicited and obtained “illegal payments” in the same scheme, the information said. In exchange, the city manager also directed Harris and other employees to take care of the businesses’ licensing requests.
“Public Official B [Chiverton] also would make payments to Harris for his assistance in taking official actions to benefit the paying businesses and individuals,” court records said. It noted that Harris also obtained “illegal payments” from businesses and individuals “by taking official actions relating to their water service.”
On April 10 of last year, Public Official A, Santiago, told a businessman working undercover as an FBI informant to meet him outside the commissioner’s house to resolve his water bill to avoid service being shut down, the charging document said. Later that day, Santiago met with the informant outside the commissioner’s house and “accepted $850 in cash” from him to prevent the water from being turned off, it added.
Four days later, Public Official A, Santiago, asked Harris to go to the informant’s place of business “to stop an Opa-locka employee from shutting down” his water services and also “instructed Harris not to talk to anyone about his request.”
On April 15, Harris told Public Official B, Chiverton, that he “attempted to collect additional money” from the informant “in connection with the business’ water-service billing issues.”
A month later, Harris met with another businessman-turned-FBI informant and “accepted a $300 cash payment in exchange for having the water service turned back on” at his business on, according to the information. “After accepting the $300 payment, Harris directed two Opa-locka employees to turn the water back on” at his business.
Longtime Opa-locka civic activist Alvin Burke said be believed the arrests will help the city, now under the control of a state oversight board, to move forward. “We’re finally seeing some headway,” he said.