Four years ago on July 3, 2012, when Kelvin Baker landed the top job in Opa-locka, I predicted that “this unholy union should keep the Miami New Times and the Miami Herald (and hopefully, this blog) in business for the next two decades.”
Even as I pointed out that Opa-locka was “arguably the most corrupt city in Florida, possibly the entire country,” I had no idea just how unholy this union would turn out to be.
As impossible as it seemed at the time, Opa-locka’s long and scandalous history of fraud and corruption took a turn for the worse after the Mayor and Commissioners hired the same former city manager who wreaked financial havoc in North Miami Beach until he was finally fired in 2010.
It should be noted that even before Kelvin Baker was promoted as the North Miami Beach city manager in 2008, he also served as the assistant city manager since 2004, and was previously the director of public services, including its water utility operation, for 10 years from 1994 to 2004.
Even though Opa-locka’s current financial disaster began long before Kelvin Baker was hired, its problems only intensified during the three years he was at the helm. Baker eventually resigned last July (and is now the City Manager of Lauderdale Lakes), but his Opa-locka troubles may not be over.
An examination of the timeline of events, as pointed out in today’s front page Miami Herald article, Opa-locka turned public utility into extortion, clearly implicates Kelvin Baker’s direct participation in the rampant corruption in the city’s water department, which is only one of the areas under the federal investigation that has led to two arrests so far.
The Miami Herald reported on Thursday that Gregory Harris, who resigned as Opa-locka’s assistant director of public works only days earlier, “is accused of conspiring with a city commissioner, city manager and other employees to extort thousands of dollars in cash payments from Opa-locka business owners seeking occupational licenses, water connections and other permits.”
In a News Release issued on Friday by Wifredo A. Ferrer, United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, and George L. Piro, Special Agent in Charge, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Miami Field Office, announced that Harris and former Opa Locka City Manager David Chiverton, who resigned on Monday, was also charged “by Information with conspiring with an unnamed Opa Locka elected official (“Public Official A”), former Opa Locka Assistant Public Works Director Gregory Harris, and others to use their official positions and authority with the City of Opa Locka to solicit, demand, and obtain thousands of dollars in illegal cash payments from businesses and individuals in exchange for taking official actions to assist and benefit those businesses and individuals in their dealings with the City of Opa Locka.”
Both are “charged by information,” which, as the Miami Herald explains, means they are “cooperating with the U.S. attorney’s office and the FBI in the sprawling corruption probe and [are] expected to plead guilty to a conspiracy in the future.”
Earlier this year, Opa-locka government buildings were raided by federal agents who gathered “official records, computers and other evidence in a corruption probe zeroing in on top public officials, including the mayor and other city commissioners,” as reported by the Miami Herald on March 10, 2016.
One by one, city officials and political operatives were implicated in a massive corruption scheme, which exposed a “shadow government,” and led to the tragic suicide of a sitting commissioner.
In May, CBS Miami’s Jim Defede aired his interview with Frank Zambrana (Click for Part 1 and Part 2), who helped set up a sting operation with the FBI in order to bring down some of the most crooked public officials South Floridians have ever seen. And that’s saying a lot!
In late June, then-acting city manager Yvette Harrell was caught illegally tapping into a “bond reserve set aside to pay investors in case Opa-locka failed to make its payments on the City Hall purchase.” When she was confronted by two city employees, Finance Director Charmaine Parchment and Budget Director Keith Carswell, Harrell fired Carswell and opened the city up to a lawsuit for unlawful termination.
As if Opa-locka didn’t already have enough problems!
It is now being reported that the blatant corruption inside Opa-locka’s water department was so rampant, it’s impossible to believe it could have been kept hidden from anyone at City Hall, much less former City Manager Kelvin Baker.
By 2013, tens of thousands of water bills owed by Mayor Myra Taylor’s private Vankara School ($57,741 at the time Baker was hired in 2012) had not been paid in years. The Finance Director at the time, Sophia Miller “said she was ordered by a supervisor in 2013 to examine the school’s delinquent accounts and look for a way to “write off” $30,000,” but she refused, the Herald reported.
Miller told reporters, “I went to the city manager and told him that they [her supervisor and others] were going to get into trouble. I was not going to be the one who went to jail.”
Sophia Miller unsuccessfully tried to get Opa-locka to cut off the water to Vankara, after which she was “removed from duties overseeing the water bills.” The Herald also reported that city officials “later erased two of the school’s bills — $12,410 and $3,558 — on Aug. 21, noting them as ‘settlement adjustments.'”
“To this day, Vankara owes nearly $120,000 for the services,” according to the article.
Other Opa-locka businesses benefited from having ties to the Mayor and Commission in that hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid water bills for those businesses have been erased from the books.
In March of 2012, then Assistant City Manager Jordan Leonard opened an investigation of the water department and “found that city employees with access to the system were shutting down delinquent accounts, some with overdue payments, and then opening new ones at the same address,” and thus wiping out the debt.
In the months before Kelvin Baker was hired in July of that year, the Opa-locka Police Department began investigating “an entirely new level of corruption rarely seen even in large cities.”
The Herald article reports that city records “show that a cadre of public works employees had spent years creating a “parallel” water system by bypassing the city’s meters and installing illegal “feeds” into homes and businesses. Instead of the city getting paid each month, the customers would pay cash — monthly fees of $40 to $100 — directly to the employees.”
More disturbing details about the mismanagement and corruption also has surfaced, including bribery, extortion and even exchanging sexual favors for water.
It’s interesting to note that soon as Kelvin Baker took over, he immediately shut down the police investigation, claiming that “it would be handled internally at City Hall.” At that point, whistleblower Jordan Leonard, the Assistant City Attorney who first exposed all the corruption, as well as the then-City Manager Bryan Finnie, were both forced to resign.
Not surprisingly, Kelvin Baker has not responded to requests from the Miami Herald for an interview.
Jordan Leonard, however, was only too happy to speak with reporters.
He said, “Think of all the people at City Hall who knew this was happening and what they could have done five years ago to stop it. You wouldn’t be in the position you are today. It’s beyond just the abuse of the position. It’s the abuse of the trust. Their first priority was not to protect the residents and the customers. It was to make money.”
Despite the arrests of two top Opa-locka officials, the Miami Herald reported that “the misconduct in the water program remains one of the least examined activities in a city that has been under an FBI corruption investigation for the past three years. To this day, little has been done by law enforcement to track the extent of the illegal activities in the city’s largest operation — or the impact. Over the past five years, the program, which services about 5,000 customers, has lost millions in revenue, records show.”
And finally, the Herald reported that “the abuses continued to spread in a program that was bleeding an average of $1 million annually.”
Absolutely no one should be shocked that such rampant corruption took place under Kelvin Baker’s watch.
Nor can the Lauderdale Lakes Mayor and Commissioners ever say they weren’t warned.