A business owner looking to occupy space in two commercial buildings in Opa-locka said he paid thousands extra—but not in real estate-related expenses.
Tire repair store operator Francisco Pujol planned to work from industrial properties at 3890 NW 132nd St. and 2695 NW 141st St., but he claimed he paid up to $20,000 in one year to city officials seeking bribes to let him set up tire disposal shops, according to a lawsuit in federal court.
Now, his attorneys want up to $1 million in punitive, compensatory and special damages from the beleaguered city in northern Miami-Dade County.
“There’s a message,” said plaintiffs lawyer Michael A. Pizzi Jr. of Miami Lakes, who teamed with attorney Douglas Jason Jeffrey. “If city officials extort and abuse people, they are going to have to pay a heavy price.”
Among other allegations, Pujol claims Opa-locka Code Enforcement Director Gregory Days arranged for employees to make multiple visits and issue citations as part of an organized fraud, according to the lawsuit pending before U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro. Once Pujol paid $1,500 off the books, the code enforcement chief “proceeded to void all fines,” according to the complaint filed May 26.
City attorney Vincent T. Brown of The Brown Law Group in Miami, declined to comment on behalf of Opa-locka officials, citing the municipality’s policy of not discussing ongoing litigation.
Pujol’s lawsuit is the latest in a long-running saga that involved him in an FBI sting targeting several high-ranking city employees. He cooperated with investigators by recording a bathroom meeting where he paid a $2,500 cash bribe to former Opa-locka City Manager David Chiverton, according to the Miami Herald.
U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga later sentenced Chiverton to more than three years in prison for bribery. It was unclear by deadline whether law enforcement officials intend to bring charges against business owners who paid bribes to public officials.
Pujol’s suit is the latest blow for the cash-strapped city where 43 percent of residents live in poverty and the median household income was $19,243 in 2014, according to the latest census data.
In 2016, fired City Manager Roy Stephen Shiver sued Opa-locka for wrongful termination, racial discrimination, defamation and violation of Florida’s Whistle-blower’s Act. The city removed the pending case to U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida on Aug. 30 to address the racial discrimination claims under federal law.
The city replaced Shiver with Chiverton, who resigned amid the FBI probe and has since been succeeded by Yvette Harrell.
Shiver’s lawsuit was one in a slew of upheavals for Opa-locka. It came one day before the death of City Commissioner Terence Pinder, who committed suicide May 24 by driving his city-issued vehicle into a tree before he was set to surrender to the state attorney’s office on bribery charges.
Another commissioner, Luis Santiago, pleaded guilty to soliciting illegal payments from local businesses.
Mayor Myra Taylor and her family have also been at the center of federal and state investigations. Prosecutors charged her husband, sister and son with campaign fraud for their handling of her mayoral campaign, and the family reportedly used Taylor’s official position to avoid paying water bills for years. Her son, Corleon Taylor, pleaded guilty to accepting bribes from business owners seeking city services.