Politics

He pocketed bribes as a politician. Now, he’s off to prison this fall

Luis Santiago, former Opa-locka city commissioner, exits the Federal Courthouse in Miami after surrendering to bribery charges in late 2016, while his defense attorney Roderick Vereen looks on.
Luis Santiago, former Opa-locka city commissioner, exits the Federal Courthouse in Miami after surrendering to bribery charges in late 2016, while his defense attorney Roderick Vereen looks on. cmguerrero@elnuevoherald.com

Luis Santiago served just one term as an Opa-locka city commissioner, devoting much of his public service to shaking down local businesses for thousands of dollars in bribes.

Now, the 56-year-old former used-car salesman will be headed to prison on Oct. 31 after giving up three other suspects involved in his corruption schemes at Opa-locka City Hall. For his “substantial assistance,” federal prosecutors agreed to slash his initial prison sentence by 40 percent, leaving Santiago with a 2-1/2 year term.

U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams approved the sentence reduction last week and allowed Santiago to remain free on bond until he surrenders to prison authorities in October.

Early last year, Santiago pleaded guilty to a bribery conspiracy. He accepted tens of thousands of dollars in bribes from local businessmen, in need of city permits, who were working undercover for the FBI. He then shared that cash with an Opa-locka city manager, who had pleaded guilty in 2016.

Once he was charged in late 2016, Santiago agreed to cooperate with FBI agents and federal prosecutors by providing insider information on three other suspects implicated in graft at city hall: influential lobbyist Dante Starks and Hialeah towing company operators Raul Sosa Sr. and Raul Sosa Jr.

Santiago’s information led to guilty pleas this year by Starks, for accepting bribes, and the Sosas, for paying $10,000 to Santiago and Starks to secure a city towing contract. “He got credit on his sentencing for Starks and the Sosas,” said his defense attorney Roderick Vereen.

Starks and the Sosas are awaiting sentencing in late August and early September.

Santiago, perhaps best known around Opa-locka for sponsoring bingo nights and raising money for the city’s Fourth of July celebration, was once a key member of the commission because of his alliance with Mayor Myra Taylor.

Santiago, who was defeated in 2016, admitted in his guilty plea that he plotted with other top officials and employees to pocket up to $40,000 in bribes in a scheme that shook down several local business owners and corrupted nearly every level of the city’s financially troubled government.

Prosecutors said Santiago directed city officials to shake down those businesses, including three business owners who worked undercover for the FBI and recorded the illicit transactions. Tens of thousands in payoffs were made to Santiago and at least two other officials in parking lots, a City Hall bathroom, a restaurant and the former commissioner’s home, according to Edward Stamm, the prosecutor who filed the bribery charge.

Santiago is among seven defendants who have pleaded guilty in the long-running FBI probe of Opa-locka City Hall corruption. He lost his commission seat after the Miami Herald stories reported that he was the main target of the probe of an extortion scheme involving payoffs for official favors. The one-term commissioner, who surrendered to FBI agents in late December 2016 on the bribery charge, is the only politician to be convicted so far.

His and the other convictions coincided with serious financial troubles in Opa-locka, one of the poorest cities in Miami-Dade County. Since June 2016, the city has been under the control of a state oversight board that must approve all spending by the five-member commission because of a financial emergency.

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