This Florida City Has Been Nearly Destroyed by Poverty and Corruption
Opa-Locka might just be the most corrupt city in Florida, which is really saying something.
In this Tuesday, May 19, 2015 aerial photo, the Opa-Locka City Hall is shown in Opa-Locka, Florida. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Early last Wednesday evening, Timothy Holmes, a raspy-voiced city commissioner for Opa-Locka, Florida, was assuring about two dozen residents gathered in a village community center that their small municipal government was not under siege from all manner of bandits, crooks, and thieves.
"Don't believe everything that you read in the paper," Holmes said. "You got people out there who want to see Opa-Locka come down. Even in the city departments, we got people working against us to make Opa-Locka look bad. I am always here to do the right thing and the best thing for this community."
Earlier that day, local, state, and federal law enforcement officials raided a local flea market to gather evidence and arrest a bevy of suspects charged in a $13 million food-stamp scam. It was the second time in two months that law enforcement descended on a prominent Opa-Locka locale. Back in March, FBI agents raided city hall proper as part of a separate, ongoing criminal investigation, although no one has actually been arrested in that probe—at least not yet.
The food-stamp bust dealt another gut punch to a city already reeling from an onslaught of negative press involving allegations of unscrupulous politicians and bureaucrats shaking down business owners and city contractors, illegally pillaging city coffers for personal gain, and driving the city to the precipice of insolvency. The cascade of woes suggest that for all the rage seething across America in recent decades about the evils of big government in Washington, all it takes is a few local grifters to unleash chaos on a community.
In fact, some ethics experts suspect Opa-Locka is one the most corrupt cities in Florida history. In a state where the current governor pleaded the Fifth 75 times about his alleged role in one of the biggest healthcare-fraud schemes ever, that's really saying something.
"It's a small, poor city that has never had good government," Robert Jarvis, a legal ethics professor at Nova Southeastern University, told me. "Opa-Locka was formed in the 1920s, a time when there was a lot of swindling and phony land deals going on in Florida. When you add on top of it poverty, crime, and real urban ills, the chances of having a clean government are basically nonexistent."
Think New Jack City meets Casablanca.
A 4.2-square-mile city located just north of Miami, Opa-Locka was founded in 1926 by aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss, who incorporated Middle Eastern designs into the city's early buildings and named streets after characters from Arabian Nights. In fact, the city boasts the largest collection of Moorish revival architecture in the Western hemisphere, including the original city hall on Ali Baba Avenue. Developers initially marketed Opa-Locka as an exclusively white, middle-class enclave, according to the Orlando Sun-Sentinel. But after desegregation, mirroring a nationwide trend, whites seemed to flee the place as African Americans moved in.
Today, Opa-Locka is a low-income, working-class community where about 65 percent of the 16,000 residents are black and roughly 45 percent earn an annual income below the poverty level.
The city's notoriety as a hotbed of corruption and intrigue be traced to a 1977 grand jury report decrying "a widespread pattern of blatant mismanagement of the city government and public funds entrusted to it, corruption and venal politics." The investigation led to the arrests and convictions of Opa-Locka's then-Mayor Candido Giardino and then-Commissioner Al Tresvant for bribery, conspiracy, and unauthorized compensation of official behavior. According to the report, Giardino and Candido received a $28,000 kickback in exchange for awarding the construction of the city's public works building to a politically connected company.
The grand jury also discovered a free-for-all inside the Opa-Locka Police Department, where three narcotics cops known as the "unholy trio" had "systematically engaged in illegal narcotics trafficking as a means of paying informants," including supplying "heroin to known addicts for the purpose of eliciting their cooperation," according to the report.
Cops formed cliques with city commissioners, who brazenly interfered with open investigations involving their cronies, the grand jury found. In addition, "new officers were deliberately trained and ordered to enforce the law against black citizens in a discriminatory fashion."
Nine years later, another public corruption probe nabbed Stephen Cuiffo, Opa-Locka's planning council chairman, accepting $4,000 in bribes from Joseph Lazar, the flea market's owner at the time. Cuiffo pleaded guilty to two counts of unlawful compensation, though prosecutors dropped bribery charges against Lazar.
Back then, investigators also trained their sights on John Riley, then the mayor and accused—among other misdeeds—of pocketing a $5,000 bribe from Alberto San Pedro, a local businessman whom Miami media outlets dubbed the "Great Corrupter" after secret tape recordings of him name-dropping the politicians he allegedly paid off went public. San Pedro was convicted and sentenced to ten years on seven counts of drug trafficking and offering bribes, but Riley was never prosecuted. (He did lose his reelection bid, at least.)
South Florida cities like Opa-Locka end up enduring decades of unethical leadership due to a very transient and disengaged public, according to Jarvis. "You really don't have people watching what the politicians are doing," he said. "In the case of Opa-Locka, you have a very low-income demographic, and low-income people tend not to have good government or civic engagement at the top of their agendas."
Jarvis also added that scandals are genetically embedded in the local culture. "It's part of the DNA," he said. "Opa-Locka has problems endemic to all of south Florida."
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Nearly forty years after the 1977 grand jury report, the faces at city hall have changed, but accusations of malfeasance remain. Consider Mayor Myra Taylor, the wife of a local pastor and mother of eight children who won her first seat on the Opa-Locka City Commission in 1996.
Eight years later, after she'd won the mayoralty, a federal grand jury indicted Taylor, her husband John Taylor, and her sister Elvira Smith for conspiracy to defraud the IRS, as well as making false statements to federal investigators. In 2005, the government dropped the conspiracy charges against the Taylors and Smith when they pleaded guilty to the lesser crime of filing a false income tax return. Taylor, who was removed from office by then-Governor Jeb Bush, served one year's probation along with her sibling, while her spouse got three-years probation. In 2008, though, she was reelected to the city commission, and two years after that got her old job back when she was reelected mayor.
The Taylors ran into trouble again in 2012 when Miami-Dade Police arrested the mayor's husband, sister, and son on fraud and fabricating evidence charges over an alleged scheme to cover up illegal contributions to her 2010 campaign. (The sister completed a pretrial intervention program, and the son got slapped with two years of probation.)
Now the local powerbroker is under federal scrutiny once more after she and her husband allegedly received a $150,000 kickback from a city contractor in exchange for supporting a sewer project, according to local media reports. At the commission meeting last Wednesday, an indignant Taylor accused journalists working for the Miami Herald and local television stations of spreading false rumors and innuendo.
"We have been vilified, fried, and dyed in the media," she told the assembly. "Even our own citizens are criticizing us and talking about us... that we are doing this and that, firing people, and stealing money with no real facts whatsoever."
When the meeting concluded, Taylor declined to speak with me about her past federal indictment and the current investigation. The mayor also did not return two subsequent phone messages seeking comment. But Opa-Locka residents in the audience that day were fed up with all the local drama.
"It's embarrassing to know that you have these elected officials that you voted for being investigated for corruption, racketeering charges, and kickback schemes," said Dwayne Manuel, 26-year-old law student who grew up in Opa-Locka but currently lives in neighboring Miami Gardens.
"When you take an elected position, you are not supposed to be in it to make money," he added. "Unfortunately, in their minds, this was a good way to make some extra cash. They should have resigned after the first FBI raid."
Natasha Ervin, a local caterer whose family moved to Opa-Locka in 1976, said she decided to buy her first home in the city 24 years later out of a profound sense of civic pride.
"It's sad to see [Opa-Locka] being torn down like this," she told me. "But I love my city. The only way to change things is for people to stand up."
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