Otis Wallace, Florida City's "mayor for life," is corrupt with power

Gayle Marshall limped up to her lemonade-yellow Florida City home, the same low-slung house where she'd grown up and spent most of her 46 years. Life hadn't been kind to her. Police had gunned down her only son three years ago. Her mother had nearly died from a recent stroke. Marshall was poor and unemployed. Her club-like left foot, crippled since birth, dragged across the yard.

When she tried to open the back door, her key caught in the lock. She tried the front entrance, but it too wouldn't budge. Marshall called the only man in town who could be responsible: her older brother, Florida City Mayor Otis Wallace.

"I'm renting out the house," Marshall recalls Wallace saying coldly. "If you don't clear out, I'll sue you. Or send you to jail."

Former Homestead mayor Roscoe Warren (left), an unnamed youth, and Mayor Otis Wallace at a Martin Luther King Day ceremony.
City of Homestead
Former Homestead mayor Roscoe Warren (left), an unnamed youth, and Mayor Otis Wallace at a Martin Luther King Day ceremony.
South Dade High School teacher Israel Andrews in front of city hall last month.
Michael E. Miller
South Dade High School teacher Israel Andrews in front of city hall last month.

Marshall jimmied open her front door. Exhausted, she lay down on her bed in the dark. But minutes later, she heard voices and the squawk of radios outside. When she opened her eyes, she could see the red and blue pulse of police cruiser lights on the ceiling. Cops clutching shotguns had surrounded the house. Wallace's giant black Hummer screeched to a halt in the driveway.

"Get her out of here," he ordered the cops. Despite having her mother's permission to live there and a driver's license registered to the address, Marshall was evicted from her family home.

She couldn't argue. Wallace's word is bond in Florida City, a dirt-poor suburb of shotgun shacks and gas stations 35 miles south of Miami, where Florida's Turnpike dissolves into the Keys. When he was elected in 1984, Wallace became one of Florida's first black mayors, a civil rights hero who had helped desegregate his high school and then returned after college to aid his poverty-stricken hometown. After Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992, he oversaw Florida City's reconstruction and earned national acclaim.

Twenty years later, Wallace is still in office. But something is now rotten in Florida City. Official documents, interviews, and a two-month investigation by Miami New Times paint the picture of a powerful man corrupted into a millionaire land owner who manipulates elections and abuses his position. Records show the FBI and the Miami-Dade Police public corruption unit have repeatedly investigated Wallace, collecting testimony that he illegally sold his vote for a $1 million land deal and orchestrated bribes for city permits. Political opponents, meanwhile, have handed federal investigators evidence that a convicted felon working for the mayor has influenced votes.

Wallace emphatically denies the allegations. He says he has never taken a bribe or sold his vote, and that his personal wealth is from inheritance and hard work. He insists he has never spoken to investigators and wasn't aware of any probe. And he calls his accusers "liars" who are trying to destroy his reputation. "I don't care about testimony before the FBI," he says. "It's bullshit."

But the most damning evidence against Wallace might be his own sister's claim that he considers himself "untouchable."

"He's been living high on the hog for too long," she says. "He's using his political power to railroad me — his own flesh and blood. If he can be that nasty to me, who knows what else he's capable of."

Otis Wallace stares out of the open passenger window of an old Crown Victoria and surveys his kingdom. The 60-year-old has changed since he was first elected city councilman three and a half decades ago. Once a slim teenager, he's now approaching sumo-wrestler size. His hair and mustache are flecked with white. And his brown cheeks are beginning to wrinkle. Florida City has changed too.

"I want to show you the future," the mayor says. Blighted buildings on the edge of town give way to sprawling tomato fields. "Just look at the growth potential."

Both Wallace and Florida City have grown. As his personal wealth has swelled, so have city limits — each driven by the mayor's insatiable hunger for success. Today Wallace wields more power over his personal fiefdom than any other politician in Florida.

Otis T. Wallace was born in Florida City on Halloween in 1951, when blacks weren't allowed south of Palm Drive, let alone in office. His mother Hattie worked back-breaking days picking tomatoes in 100-degree heat. His father was a farm organizer in the sugarcane fields near Lake Okeechobee. When they divorced, Hattie found a job boxing fruit at the local packing house.

Wallace describes his childhood as "happy-go-lucky." His mom and stepdad — a fellow tomato packer — were gone often, following crops up the East Coast. Otis and his six sisters lived in a poor, black Florida City neighborhood near a notorious nightclub called Mom's Place. But his grandparents pampered their only grandson.

"Otis had the softest feet of all of us because Grandma would never allow him to go outside barefoot," says Wallace's older sister, Barbara Jordan, who's now a Miami-Dade commissioner. Even then, Otis had a way of commanding others. "Boys would gather at our place to play softball in the dirt road, and he would pretty much boss them all around."

At night, Otis watched Perry Mason episodes on television with his grandparents. In every episode, the dapper attorney would inevitably save his client's life. Wallace loved Mason's perfect record. "He was a winner," Wallace remembers. "And I liked that."

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11 comments
g3j5
g3j5

what if he had her son killed... and if u stay in Florida city you know how this shit is they jus start building shit down here lol them ugly ass trees they put up that nigga pocketing all the money put his sister out and he got millions talkin bout he be at the football games he should be at every game its fuckin 120$ to play this shit is corrupt down here only thing the police do is ride around and fuck hoes

Pj3x71
Pj3x71

Mayor Otis Wallace is a very honest hard working man that i have none for quit some time. I meet him when my kids start playing football at the park, where he spend lots of hour cheering and supporting our kids.Continue doing your job that you have done so well..... I here the same guy that went to the FBI is also a convicted felon himself, that also sold and use drugs himself...

runrandrand
runrandrand

WHY IS THIS USELESS STORY IN IT'S THIRD WEEKEND CYCLE? THE NEWS IS EVEN SLOWER THEN THE DAYTONA RACE START THAT WASN'T-----! MAYBE THE HERALD PRESSES SHOULD INK UP AND START PRINTING COUNTERFIT MONEY TO HELP THE BANKRUPT CITY---WHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH!

Hym
Hym

Damn! The New Times sure does have a way and a tone to how they write these character assassinating stories. I have never met Mr. Wallace and even though I did not graduate from high school, I can read. I can definitely read through this bull and see that the New Times failed to substantiate the title of the article. Other than putting his sister out of the house, the story reads like a desperate attempt to sell newspapers. I must admit though, it was entertaining.

Dannykeehan
Dannykeehan

Martin Luther King will be turning in his grave. give a poor man the same job and leave it for 28 years, then at the end of it find out if he has change. i bet he will?

Joy
Joy

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jtp12
jtp12

Good job Mike Miller. If you had the time, I am sure you could uncover even more. All the land, hotel/motel, real estate transactions should be investigated in that area.This is exactly what is wrong with America today. This whole scenario infiltrates our entire system. Unfortunately, it is investigated and then nothing is ever done.We just need more good reporters like you. Power, money, and corruption. Will it ever end?

Oh, one last thing, do you have a bodyguard?

husterredt
husterredt

typical in Florida City & Homestead, corruption is everywhere, Bateman is not far behind, actually he is partners with Wallace, Berrones and Henschel, its about time the FBI looks intoit..Good Job, Get them all!!!!!!!!!!!

Kcgriefs
Kcgriefs

So since he makes an appearance at a park filled with constituents he is corruption free? I am not sure what is weaker, your spelling or your logic.

Bebep
Bebep

A desperate attempt to sell their FREE newspaper.

Congratulations on not graduating high school.

Ash
Ash

You might be able to read but perhaps you have a problem with comprehension. It's sad because he did many admirable things (as this article points out). He couldn't resist the temptation of corruption. He's slippery but they all get caught eventually.

 
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