Friday, March 10, 2017

No prison time for cooperating former public works director in corruption case

Corrupt Opa-locka official was a prized witness. He was rewarded with no prison time.

Former Opa-locka public works supervisor Gregory Harris collected money under the table in exchange for turning on customers’ water service.

Exactly one year ago, dozens of FBI agents descended on Opa-locka City Hall and seized thousands of public records to build a corruption case aimed at top government officials.

They would flip Gregory Harris, a 50-year-old public works supervisor suspected of turning off and turning on the water connections of local customers to make money under the table. He would eventually plead guilty to a single conspiracy charge of taking a $300 bribe from an Opa-locka business owner working undercover for the feds.

In the 4-year-old investigation, Harris stands out as a prized FBI cooperating witness — so much so that a federal judge on Thursday gave him a three-year probationary sentence with 600 hours of community service for helping the U.S. attorney’s office strengthen its criminal case against Opa-locka politicians and employees.

“Gregory zealously undertook his cooperation and understood it would be without limit as to people and entities,” his defense attorney, Nathan Diamond, wrote in a motion urging the probationary sentence with community service. He noted that Harris met eight times with agents and prosecutors.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Edward Stamm recommended three years of probation — but with six months of home confinement — instead of at least one year in prison under the sentencing guidelines for Harris’ offense. Stamm said the defendant provided “substantial assistance” to the federal investigation, but disclosed the details of his help in a private colloquy with Diamond and U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom because the criminal case is unfolding.


Bloom chose not to give the defendant any type of incarceration, saying: “I believe your sentence should be to serve your community.”

Harris, who expressed his remorse and humiliation at the sentencing, is a North Miami resident known for mentoring inner-city children and working as a pastor of an Opa-locka church. He pleaded guilty at the end of August to conspiring with a former city commissioner, Luis Santiago, an assistant city manager, David Chiverton, and others to extort business owners who were pressured to pay thousands of dollars in bribes to obtain water connections and operating licenses.

Harris’ onetime boss, Chiverton, who rose from assistant city manager to city manager, pleaded guilty in August to the same bribery conspiracy charge and was sentenced to three years in prison. Santiago pleaded guilty to the same conspiracy offense in January and awaits a similar sentence later this month.

Corleon Taylor, who used to work for the city’s trash hauler, also pleaded guilty to the same conspiracy charge in December and was sentenced to five months in prison and five months of home confinement. He is the son of Opa-locka Mayor Myra Taylor.

At Thursday’s sentencing, Stamm, the prosecutor, said the “role [Harris] played stands in stark contrast” to that of Santiago and Chiverton, the main players in an extortion racket at City Hall. He also distinguished Harris from Corleon Taylor.

The four convictions so far are a prelude to an expected indictment charging other city officials, employees and an influential lobbyist with corruption later this year.

While the criminal probe has shaken the working-class, predominantly African-American city to its core, Opa-locka’s troubled government has been placed under the authority of a state financial oversight board appointed by Gov. Rick Scott last June.

Opa-locka has still not balanced its budget six months into the current fiscal year, and the city commission must present a spending plan to the oversight board by early April — or it could face potentially drastic action by the governor, including the dissolution of its government with a takeover by an outsider, such as Miami-Dade County.

U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom, to Gregory Harris

The state’s chief inspector general, who heads the oversight board, told Florida legislators last month that before such tough measures are taken, the governor would have to determine whether Opa-locka officials have committed “malfeasance, misfeasance or neglect of duty.”

“We are looking at whether or not that threshold would have been met,” Chief Inspector General Melinda Miguel told members of the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee. “It has not been met at this point.”

Committee members, who condemned the city’s inaction amid the corruption probe, ordered the state auditor general to conduct an operational audit of Opa-locka’s government.

Jay Weaver: 305-376-3446, @jayhweaver

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