Embattled Opa-locka city manager takes leave amid FBI corruption probe

Embattled Opa-locka City Manager David Chiverton announced he is taking a leave of absence, one week after the Miami Herald reported he had improperly paid himself nearly $40,000 in unused vacation and sick time.

Currently at the center of an FBI investigation into widespread corruption, Chiverton stated in a memo he is taking a leave for “medical reasons” while the city faces mounting debts that could lead to a financial takeover by the state.

The 51-year-old administrator wrote to Mayor Myra Taylor and commissioners that he named his newly hired assistant manager, Yvette Harrell, as his replacement, citing his authority under the city’s charter. He added that he would assist her — “to the extent I am able” — until his return.

Harrell, a lawyer, had been working with Opa-locka City Attorney Vincent Brown before she was hired last month as Chiverton’s assistant. Chiverton did not respond Thursday to interview requests.

The abrupt move comes in the midst of tense discussions between the city and the governor’s office over Opa-locka’s mounting debts — now in the millions — and the prospect of the state declaring a financial emergency and placing the city under control of an oversight board.

After the Herald published a story on May 12 showing Chiverton directed tens of thousands in benefits to himself to which he was not entitled, Florida’s chief inspector general, Melinda Miguel, fired off an email to the manager demanding an explanation for his payments.

“Please provide this by close of business on Friday,” she wrote.

Chiverton explained to her in an email that “due to unforeseen emergencies,” he had to cash in his unused vacation and sick time because his daughter has been diagnosed with an “incurable disease” and his “elderly mother suffers from severe ongoing medical conditions.”

He said that since there was no policy in place for city administrators appointed by the commissioners, there was nothing that “prohibits or restricts me” from receiving vacation and sick pay.

In conclusion, he said, “my actions did not constitute a violation of any policy, procedure or practice relating to appointed personnel.”

The Herald found the city manager approved two payments totaling nearly $40,000 to himself in what were violations of the city’s policies for employees not under contract.

Not only does the Opa-locka personnel benefits handbook state, “the city will not pay out accrued sick leave to current employees,” but it also states, “employees will not be paid for accumulated annual leave [vacation time] while continuing to be employed by the city.”

There is no separate provision for employees appointed by the commission, such as the city manager, city clerk and city attorney. Brown, the city attorney, declined to comment.

In Chiverton’s case, one of the payments for $14,160 was for unused vacation time and the other — $24,982 — was for sick time that far exceeded what he was allowed to receive under the city’s rules.

While Chiverton was receiving the payments in late April, the city was embarking on a recovery plan that included slashing the work week for most employees to 32 hours and laying off a round of city employees.

Chiverton, a former assistant city manager who was appointed acting city manager in November, said in a interview with the Herald last week that other employees have tapped into their benefits in the past “when unforeseen expenses” occurred. “Why is this an issue with me?”

However, in the case of Chiverton, who served less than four years with Opa-locka, city regulations limit the amount of sick time he can receive to just a quarter of what he had accrued.

In his case, he took all the amount: a gross payment of $24,982 for what amounts to 419 hours in sick pay, or 10 weeks, on May 4.

Former Opa-locka Vice Mayor Steven Barrett said the city manager needed to step down to relieve Opa-locka at a time it was under intense scrutiny.

“He had become a distraction,” said Barrett. “The pressure had become too much. He needed to step down.”

The Herald requested a copy of Chiverton’s contract, but there is no formal agreement on file at the city, where his pay was $123,500 annually.

While the city manager has been at the center of the city’s financial crisis, he has also been a key suspect in the FBI investigation, which is probing nearly every level of local government.

At least two informants working for federal agents say they secretly tape recorded meetings as Chiverton and other public officials allegedly shook down business owners for tens of thousands before granting them operating licenses, according to two owners who became informants for the FBI. Chiverton has declined to discuss the federal investigation.

During a meeting last week, Commissioner Joseph Kelley proposed the city manager be placed on unpaid leave until the controversy ends, but the commission turned it down, 3-1.

Michael Sallah: 305-376-2218, @MikeSallah7