Politics

Before going to prison, former Opa-locka commissioner worked on political campaigns

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

Former Opa-locka City Commissioner Luis Santiago, who pleaded guilty to pocketing thousands of dollars in bribes, started his federal prison sentence on Friday.

But before he surrendered to a correctional facility in Texas, the 57-year-old Santiago spent the fall election season working as a campaign aide for John Riley, an Opa-locka commissioner running for mayor, and other candidates on Tuesday’s ballot.

Riley paid $2,500 to Santiago and his wife, Mercedes, for helping him reach out to Hispanic voters in the mostly black city in north-central Miami-Dade, according to campaign finance reports. Those payments accounted for about 10 percent of the contributions to Riley’s mayoral campaign.

Riley said he had no qualms about hiring Santiago as a part-time campaign worker, despite his pleading guilty early last year to extorting money from Opa-locka businesses seeking city permits and contracts.

“It kept his mind busy and gave him a sense of purpose,” Riley said Monday. “It’s depressing knowing that you’re going to be facing prison.”

Riley, a retired business consultant, said Santiago and his wife are well known in Opa-locka’s growing Hispanic community and helped him attract new voters.

“They could help me, and I wanted to help them as a family,” said Riley, who faces three opponents in the mayor’s race, Commissioner Matthew Pigatt, Dorothy Johnson and Rose Tydus.

Two candidates in Opa-locka commission races, Sandra Espinal and Chris Davis, also paid Santiago for door-to-door canvassing and providing security at an early-voting polling place. Santiago received $250 from Espinal for the canvassing and $95 from Davis for the security, according to campaign finance records.

Santiago served just one term as an Opa-locka commissioner before losing his seat two years ago. Soon after, he was charged with conspiring to commit bribery in Miami federal court. By early 2017, he pleaded guilty and was cooperating with the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office in their long-running probe of corruption at city hall. Seven people, including Santiago, have pleaded guilty so far.

For his “substantial assistance,” federal prosecutors agreed to slash his initial prison sentence by 40 percent, leaving Santiago with a two-and-a-half-year term.

In August, U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams approved the sentence reduction and allowed Santiago to remain free on a $50,000 bond until he surrendered to prison authorities on Friday.

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