BRADENTON, Fla. - Opa-locka faces potentially expensive legal challenges that could push the small south Florida city closer to bankruptcy.
A business owner who worked with the FBI to uncover shakedowns by city officials filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday claiming he suffered years of "extortion, coercion, threats and intimidation" that violated his civil rights and right to due process.
In a 10-page suit, Francisco Zambrana, an Opa-locka businessman of Nicaraguan decent, spells out encounters with code enforcement chief, Gregory Days, city Commissioner Luis Santiago, and a then-assistant city manager, David Chiverton, all of whom he said demanded payoffs for a business license he never received.
"From the onset, Zambrana simply sought to obtain an occupational license," the complaint said. "Zambrana would repeatedly tell the city officials and employees who would care to listen that all he wanted to do was work and provide for his family, including teenage son who was battling cancer."
Opa-locka, which is now under the control of a state-appointed financial oversight board, is in the midst of public hearings to develop a budget for fiscal 2017 as it struggles to pay basic bills.
The Zambrana lawsuit will be another expense to be considered in the budget, along with a legal challenge in state court that was moved to federal district court last month.
According to Zambrana's complaint, Opa-locka enforced a "practice and custom of threatening, intimidating and extorting individuals" based on national origin to operate a business in the city.
"The practice and custom was authorized by policymakers within the city and it was a widespread practice so permanent and well-settled as to constitute a custom or usage with the force of law," said Zambrana, who sold heavy construction and farm equipment.
Eventually, Zambrana said, he visited the FBI to report what was happening and worked with federal agents to uncover the shakedown scheme, which led Chiverton – who later became city manager - to plead guilty Sept. 12 to pocketing payoffs.
Zambrana, the suit contends, lost money borrowed from friends and clients and was forced to sell equipment at below market price to maintain his business.
He also lost inventory, clients and profits for property he could not fully use because of the extortion scheme, he said.
Only Opa-locka is named as a defendant in the suit, which seeks a jury trial.
On Aug. 30, a lawsuit filed in state court earlier this year by former City Manager Roy Stephen Shiver was moved to federal court after Shiver received permission from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to file a complaint alleging racial discrimination.
Shiver, who is white, claims he was defamed by a trumped-up allegation that he took a bribe.
In November, Shiver contends that he was fired without proper cause by city commissioners and the mayor, who are all black.
Shiver, who first reported the city's serious financial problems to Gov. Rick Scott last October, is asking for a jury trial to consider his requests for back pay, payment of lost benefits, compensatory and liquidated damages.
In June, Scott appointed the financial oversight board to handle all city expenses, including legal fees. The board's next meeting is Thursday.
In addition to the lawsuits, the Securities and Exchange Commission has opened an inquiry into some of the city's bonds, which were issued as its financial condition was severely deteriorating.
The FBI's investigation is ongoing.