Fred Grimm

Greedy crooks running Opa-locka turned bribery into a lousy investment

The old Opa-locka City Hall.
The old Opa-locka City Hall. FOR THE MIAMI HERALD

No one ever accused Candy Giardino of this kind of double-dealing.

Four decades ago, when Giardino was mayor of Opa-locka, it was a straightforward deal. Electrical contractor Dante Dino Jr. delivered the money. Giardino and City Commissioner Al Tresyant pocketed their bribes. Dino got the swell contracts, including work on the city’s new public works building.

The 1976 grand jury fall term report began with the town’s bribe-taking shenanigans, noting with weary resignation: “This Dade County Grand Jury, as so many in the past, received complaints about the government operations of the city of Opa-locka.”

The eventual bribery convictions of Giardino, Tresyant and Dino hardly stanched Opa-locka’s longstanding culture of corruption. Similar scandals arose in the 1980s and 1990s and 2000s. A Miami Herald investigation in 1999 referred to the city’s ruined finances: “Yet even in the worst of times, the city's politicians and managers have run Opa-locka like Ali-Baba and the Forty Thieves, treating themselves to goodies and fashioning generous contracts for their cronies.”

And so it continues. Once again, the city is flat-out broke. Once again, that hasn’t stopped the thieving. My Herald colleges Jay Weaver and Mike Sallah reported Saturday that a federal grand jury is considering racketeering indictments against as many as a dozen people, including a number of city officials, for indulging in Opa-locka’s illicit tradition.

But somehow this set of crimes was even more low-down than back in the day. This time, the bribes were solicited and paid, but then the crooks only demanded more money. No honor among these low-down thieves.

Weaver and Sallah described the continuous shake-down of Frank Zambrana, who paid tens of thousands of dollars to Opa-locka city officials as he tried to procure a $150 business license for his heavy-equipment company. Zambrana described paying bribes — more like extortion money — to the mayor’s son, to a city commissioner, to the city manager, to the city’s all-powerful lobbyist. But after three years, Zambrana still hadn’t been issued his license. Just demands for more money.

Finally, it was too much. He went to the FBI. The feds outfitted Zambrana with a surreptitious video camera.

Reportedly, the grand jury, circa 2016, has also heard testimony from other business owners forced to pay serial bribes as if they were operating in some lawless Third World backwater. There was a report that water service would be cut off to certain businesses and reconnected only when the customer slipped the public works director $250.

The crazy thing about this greed-fest is that a number of the actors implicated in the latest scandal included some of the same characters involved in earlier Opa-locka misadventures, including Dante Starks, the same lobbyist who pleaded guilty in 2014 to conflict of interest charges. Apparently, a conviction, fine and two-years-probation hardly mattered to Opa-locka’s powerbroker. Starks was reportedly captured on video taking $500 bucks from Zambrana.

Bribery is hardly new in Opa-locka, sure, but back in Mayor Candy’s day, a sap could figure on getting a return on his investment.

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