Opa-locka: A whistleblower’s story
For Opa-locka Mayor Myra Taylor, the Vankara School represents her legacy, a sprawling, neatly landscaped institution that educated generations of children in Christian values.
There were morning prayers and required uniforms at the private school, along with a curriculum grounded in the three Rs.
But when it came to paying its bills, the school broke its own rules.
Year after year, the mayor’s school that once hosted fundraisers for politicians ran up tens of thousands in water and sewer charges at the campus, and never paid the bills.
The charges reached $30,000 in 2010. The following year, the amount doubled, and to this day, Vankara owes nearly $120,000 for the services — with no effort by the city to stop the water or demand the money be paid during its worst economic crisis.
The school wasn’t the only customer to benefit from the city’s largesse. Opa-locka turned its water and sewer system into an operation that let scores of businesses and residents with connections to the city tap into Opa-locka’s most precious resource while the city was edging toward insolvency, the Miami Herald found.
At the least, it’s gross misfeasance. At its worst, it’s pervasive corruption.
Keith Carswell, former budget director
Apartment landlords were allowed to skip payments for tens of thousands in water bills. Business owners opened new accounts without paying the old ones, former administrators say.
Some city workers even turned the program into an illicit enterprise, cutting off the water of customers, and then charging cash to turn it back on — pocketing the money. When one woman fell behind on her bills, she agreed to have sex with the meter reader to keep the water on in her home, police reports state.
“It’s shameful,” said Jordan Leonard, a former Opa-locka assistant city manager who tried to stop the practices. “What they are doing is criminal. There is no other way to explain it.”
The disclosures come at a time that a state oversight board is trying to save the city from bankruptcy just months after the governor declared a financial emergency in Opa-locka.
Taylor, first elected mayor in 2002, did not respond to an interview request. Her husband, Bishop John Taylor, told the Herald the family was not “running away” from its obligations. “We fully intend to pay this bill,” said Taylor, who added the school had agreed to settle the debts.
However, records show the school, which is now closed, has not made a payment on the delinquent bills in three years. The family’s property, with its signature buildings featuring a mural of King Tut on the wall, is now in foreclosure.
Sophia Miller, a former city finance director, said she was ordered by a supervisor in 2013 to examine the school’s delinquent accounts and look for a way to “write off” $30,000.
Miller, a certified public accountant, said she refused to alter the records in the city’s billing system. “I went to the city manager and told him that they [her supervisor and others] were going to get into trouble,” she told the Herald. “I was not going to be the one who went to jail.”
Just last week, two top administrators, David Chiverton and Gregory Harris, were charged with benefiting from the troubled water program.
Harris, 44, a public works supervisor, was charged with taking a cash bribe from a businessman to keep his water running last year. Chiverton, 51, a former city manager who oversaw Harris, was charged with a similar crime involving that same businessman and others.
Even with the arrests, the misconduct in the water program remains one of the least examined activities in a city that has been under an FBI corruption investigation for the past three years.
To this day, little has been done by law enforcement to track the extent of the illegal activities in the city’s largest operation — or the impact. Over the past five years, the program, which services about 5,000 customers, has lost millions in revenue, records show.
The activities are taking place at a time the water costs are soaring in Opa-locka, stirring outrage at City Hall. Every month, residents show up at commission meetings waving their bills, some doubling or more from the year before, records show.
Longtime resident Sandra Collado, who lives in a modest, three-bedroom home, was stunned when she opened her monthly bill in January for $457— seven times her average cost. “I’ve never received a bill like this in my life,” she said. “It’s not only me. A lot of people have this problem.”
While customers have complained about bills, the city has been engaged in another practice that could cost it even more.
In the past two years, Opa-locka officials have secretly tapped into a fund that was not supposed to be touched: the deposit money paid by residents when opening water accounts.
Though the money is to be refunded when customers close their accounts, officials withdrew the funds — a total of $1.8 million — to cover budget shortfalls without a public vote or promise to pay it back.
Keith Carswell, a onetime budget director, said the withdrawals were unethical and left the city potentially liable. “At the least, it’s gross misfeasance,” said Carswell, who was fired in June after challenging the city over fiscal policies. “At its worst, it’s pervasive corruption.”
For a city that has struggled with stagnant property values and crime, the water and sewer program was supposed to be a lifeline, a vital source of income for Opa-locka. Across Miami-Dade, the utility programs generate millions for their cities.
But at every turn, Opa-locka leaders allowed the program to be exploited, costing the city untold thousands of dollars.
For years, the mayor’s school, Vankara, was secretly getting breaks on its water bills, with delinquencies totaling $28,881 in 2009. Every month, the bills kept rising while the debts simply rolled over. At times, the city imposed liens, then lifted them without forcing the school to pay up.
Not until a class-action case pressed by residents over unfair penalties on water customers did the practice of waiving debts gain any scrutiny. At trial, assistant finance director Faye Douglas admitted the city had a “friends and family plan” that gave special treatment on water bills to politicians, city workers and other insiders.
In addition, she said the city had an “informal policy” of not cutting off the water of commissioners and others who didn’t pay their bills.
Ultimately, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Victoria Sigler ordered the practice to stop, calling it “arbitrary, capricious and discriminatory” in a 2007 ruling.
But the city kept waiving the delinquencies.
As the Vankara school expanded, so did its water invoices. In 2010, the same year the mayor was re-elected, the total was $30,699 — a bill that had accumulated for years. Two years later, it grew to $57,741.
In 2013, Miller, then assistant finance director, was told by her supervisor, Ezekial Orji, to “adjust” some of the debt by writing off about $30,000.
She refused, she said.
Instead, she pushed for the city to stop supplying water to the school, but she said her request was turned down.
The shakedowns were so brazen that one businessman stormed into City Hall earlier this year to complain that a meter reader had demanded cash to settle a late water bill at the owner’s laundromat, said a former budget director.
Shortly after, she was removed from duties overseeing the water bills. City officials later erased two of the school’s bills — $12,410 and $3,558 — on Aug. 21, noting them as “settlement adjustments.”
By last year, the school’s water debts mushroomed to $112,175 — one of the highest bills ever incurred in the city. Orji, who retired as finance director, did not respond to interview requests.
Vankara wasn’t the only beneficiary. The Opa-locka Flea Market, which has employed city commissioners and kept deep ties to City Hall, has run up an overdue water bill topping $126,000.
Owner Scott Miller said he has complained about what he considers “inaccurate water bills generated by a corrupt Opa-locka water billing system.” But to this day, his bill remains the largest owed to the city.
Another businessman with connections to Mayor Taylor and her husband has owed the city $13,000 in overdue bills. Contractor George Howard acknowledged he owes the money from his apartment complex on Opa-locka Boulevard, but doesn’t believe he’s been granted any “favors” because of his political connections.
“We’re working out a payment plan,” said Howard, who has not paid a bill in nearly three years.
It wasn’t until the arrival of a new administrator at City Hall that the unpaid bills from the Vankara school and other water customers caught the attention of law enforcement.
Jordan Leonard, an assistant city manager, said he was struck by the fact that Opa-locka’s program — which buys water at wholesale rates from Miami-Dade County — was losing money each year.
With the approval of his supervisor, Leonard initiated an investigation in 2012 that turned up one of the most troubling discoveries he had ever seen in local government, he said.
While examining the computer billings — scores of accounts — Leonard found that city employees with access to the system were shutting down delinquent accounts, some with overdue payments, and then opening new ones at the same address, he said.
“They were able to actually wipe out the debts,” Leonard said.
In March 2012, Leonard wrote a scathing memo detailing several suspicious accounts, including the Vankara school, and urged the commission to pay for a forensic audit.
The memo was turned over to Opa-locka police, who began an internal investigation that turned up even more problems.
In addition to the suspicious billings, investigators found an entirely new level of corruption rarely seen even in large cities.
Records show that a cadre of public works employees had spent years creating a “parallel” water system by bypassing the city’s meters and installing illegal “feeds” into homes and businesses.
Instead of the city getting paid each month, the customers would pay cash — monthly fees of $40 to $100 — directly to the employees.
Opa-locka officer Gene Siegrist said the scheme had first surfaced in 2008 when a meter reader was caught striking secret deals with numerous homeowners. One woman admitted to police that she agreed to have sex with him to keep the water running in her home. But the charges were dropped against Willie Smalls, the meter reader, after witnesses began to back off. He is still working for the city.
By the time Siegrist picked up the case in 2012, the practice had become a burgeoning business, with public works employees removing meters from homes and installing PVC pipes known as “jumpers” so customers could keep getting water without having to pay the city. Instead, the homeowners were now paying the employees directly — in cash.
Deputy Chief Antonio Sanchez, who supervised the probe, remembers when his officer came in to the office to talk about the findings.
“He said to me, ‘Chief, you are not going to believe what we have. This is like nothing I have ever seen,’ ” Sanchez said. “It was big.”
At least 20 homes were found taking part, and many more were suspected. But before police could probe deeper, the case was shut down. Police were told by a new city manager, Kelvin Baker, the investigation would be handled internally at City Hall, Sanchez recalled.
“He said he was under a lot of political pressure,” said Sanchez, who later resigned.
Meanwhile, city commissioners agreed to pay for a forensic audit of the water program — a study to pinpoint customers getting water illegally — but they shelved the plans.
By the end of 2012, Leonard and his city manager, Bryan Finnie, were forced to resign after commissioners decided to hire a new manager. Leonard said he was warned by Terence Pinder, then a former commissioner.
“Terence just told me the people weren’t happy,” Leonard said. “I blew the whistle on water and sewer. They didn’t want me around.”
Kelvin Baker, the city manager who succeeded Finnie, did not respond to interview requests by the Herald.
Sanchez and his officer took the case to the Miami-Dade public corruption unit. But within weeks, the county closed the case after Opa-locka officials failed to turn over the billing records — evidence that was critical to the investigation, reports stated.
In the ensuing years, the abuses continued to spread in a program that was bleeding an average of $1 million annually.
This time, the scheme wasn’t carried out by meter readers, but the most influential administrators and politicians in the city.
In case after case, three key leaders emerged to use their power to force business owners to pay bribes in order to get licenses and water connections, records show.
Luis Santiago, a newly elected city commissioner, David Chiverton, then an assistant city manager, and Gregory Harris, a public works supervisor, threatened to shut down businesses and turn off their water if they didn’t pay hundreds of dollars at a time — even enlisting code enforcement officers to pressure them, court records show.
But it wasn’t until a few business owners stepped forward that the FBI began to penetrate the inner workings of the water department. Frank Zambrana, a 47-year-old storage equipment operator who feared losing his business, agreed to go undercover in a probe that would reveal how far the scheme had spread.
Wearing a video recording device, Zambrana paid $300 in cash to Harris to get his water service turned back on in 2015. What struck the frustrated businessman, however, was the notebook carried by Harris that showed dozens of customers making under-the-table payments for water.
“There were a bunch of names, phone numbers and monthly payments,” Zambrana told the Herald. “My bill was $50 a month, and I could use as much water as I wanted.”
In another case, business owner Francisco Pujol carried a secret recording device when he paid Santiago $300 in cash for a water connection earlier this year. Santiago, who is expected to be charged, did not respond to interview requests.
The shakedowns were so brazen that one businessman stormed into City Hall earlier this year to complain that a meter reader had demanded cash to settle a late water bill at the owner’s laundromat, said Carswell, the former budget director.
The owner said he secretly videotaped the shakedown on his cell phone. Chiverton and current City Manager Yvette Harrell were told about the complaint, and referred it to Harris for investigation.
“It didn’t go anywhere,” Carswell said.
While the FBI targeted the suspicious payments, no one at City Hall was trying to stop the other abuse of the water program — the erasing of delinquent bills.
Leonard, the former assistant city manager, said unless the city conducts an investigation of every property, there is no way of knowing how many customers received special treatment by having their debts wiped off the books.
Raising even more questions is a recent county study that shows hundreds of occupied homes and businesses in Opa-locka don’t even appear on the city’s monthly billing records. Of the 663 properties in the study, Herald reporters visited two dozen and found that half are hooked into water lines.
Leonard said the homes and businesses getting water are “not a mistake,” but are part of a larger “systemic problem” that has deprived the city of critical revenue at a time it needs it the most.
Carswell said he recommended in April that the city conduct an audit on every property in the city to root out corrupt activity and to make sure the city was accurately gauging water use.
Leonard said the breakdowns can be traced partly to chronic mismanagement — and corruption. The few times that administrators tried to deal with problem, they were ousted from their jobs.
“There is an expectation that government is going to protect you,” Leonard said. “That’s really the sad thing.
“Think of all the people at City Hall who knew this was happening and what they could have done five years ago to stop it. You wouldn’t be in the position you are today,” he said. “It’s beyond just the abuse of the position. It’s the abuse of the trust. Their first priority was not to protect the residents and the customers. It was to make money.”