Catching you up on the Opa-locka FBI investigation

Luxury real estate isn’t the only con game in town lately.

Over in Opa-locka, the city’s mayor, manager, commissioners, and even members of the police force could be facing criminal charges for corruption involving millions of  public dollars, including bribery, extortion, and illegally shuffling around money to cover up an $8 million deficit, reports The Miami Herald.

Local government corruption cases are unfortunately common, but what sets this one apart is that it is so widespread — spanning all levels of city leadership, from the mayor to public works employees, and spreading through everything from public service departments like water and sewer to private local businesses.

It all started to unfold three years ago, after a city inspector demanded a routine bribe from a local business owner. But this time, instead of paying up, the business owner turned to the feds for help. Since then, the FBI has been investigating a slew of extortion and kickback schemes orchestrated by the city’s leadership, according to the Miami Herald.

Among other things, the investigation found that city inspectors and public works employees routinely demanded similar bribes from other local business owners, at times with the help of the police. And there are video tapes to prove it.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Higher up in the city government, commissioners were getting payoffs from administrators in exchange for massive government contracts.

Some of the deals that are being investigated include the construction of a $4.3 million community center in 2010. The bidding process seemed to be rigged so that the city’s former housing chief would be awarded the construction job, even though his bid was $1.2 million higher than the lowest competing bid.

Another includes the department of public works, where employees would turn off a customer’s water if their payment was late. But, for an under the table bribe, services were resumed. There were also cases of shell jobs in public works — a position existed and an employee collected a paycheck but the job was never physically filled.

The whole shebang came to a pretty cinematic climax on March 10, when dozens of FBI agents raided the Opa-locka City Hall, hauling away boxes on boxes of official records, computers, and hard drives.

This evidence was reviewed last week, when a federal grand jury convened to investigate if charges should actually be brought against the city’s leaders. A federal grand jury is the first step in deciding whether or not someone should be indicted, aka charged, for committing a crime.

Right now none of the city leaders have actually been charged with a crime, and no arrests have been made. Deliberations will probably happen for a few months. Then, if the jury decides with all of the evidence presented that the city leader did indeed commit a crime, his or her case may move on to a trial jury. A trial jury decides whether or not a person is guilty as charged, aka they actually did the thing that we think they did. (A trial jury is what you’ve probably seen on TV or in the movies.)

A city administrator, a city inspector, and a longtime police officer all testified as witnesses to the crimes. (We’re not supposed to know who is on the witness list, by the way. It’s confidential. But last week the city attorney accidentally emailed it out to every single Opa-locka government employee. Oops.)

Now, after hearing from the FBI and 20 key witnesses, the jury will decide if criminal charges should be brought against the mayor, city administrators, public works employees, the police, and other members of the city’s leadership involved in the multi-year extortion schemes.

Opa-locka Mayor Myra Taylor has denied any wrongdoing, and other city officials have not publicly commented on the accusations.