Smooth Operator

A real smoothie this guy is. Look at him up there on the dais of the Opa-locka City Commission. He's not one to let a boring public meeting interfere with his Valentine's Day message of love. No way, not Derrick Miller. The first time he gets the floor he stands up behind his microphone, adjusts the knot of his tie, and pulls out a bouquet of long-stem roses. With ceremonial flourish he proceeds to hand one rose each to both of the women on the commission. The female city clerk also gets a flower, as do all the female members of her staff. Smooth, man. Real smooth.

Of course in tiny, impoverished Opa-locka, a certain savoir-faire with the ladies is expected from male public officials. Last year the city paid out a two-million-dollar settlement to a former employee who was one of twelve women to file sexual-harassment charges against departed City Manager Earnie Neal. Two years ago a commission secretary charged Miller with making unwanted sexual advances over the course of six years, accusing him of, among other things, verbally fantasizing about sucking her toes. Even more recently the mother of a fifteen-year-old girl went to the Opa-locka police with allegations that Miller was pursuing an inappropriate relationship with her underage daughter.

Miller managed to kill the police investigation, much like he's been able to fend off the harassment charges from the commission secretary, who still works for the city. In fact despite the unseemly allegations and personal financial problems that might crush a politician in any other city, Miller's commission seat is safe. The 38-year-old air-traffic controller and Baptist minister remains popular with city voters. His high visibility and impassioned rhetoric on the dais have helped him galvanize a voting bloc that controls the government. Early this year he and his commission allies voted to replace a crusading and unusually competent city manager, Tony Robinson. The replacement was necessary, Miller said at the time, because Robinson had run amok. That the former manager was investigating Miller's relationship with Jenny Caba, the fifteen-year-old girl, certainly had nothing to do with it.

Yolanda Mercado: "My father passed away on November 25. Jenny [Caba], my daughter, had shown up at the funeral home in Hialeah with flowers in her hands. At the time she was working at the flea market, on weekends only. Usually when she gets paid she's dead broke again in two days. I noticed her with money and the flowers, but at that time we were all crying and whatever, so I didn't say anything. The next day I asked her where she gets her money. She said from the guy who likes her. She said that the guy who likes her is a commissioner in Opa-locka."

Jenny Caba: "I learned about [Derrick Miller] from my friend Carmen. I met him at her house when he came over to visit. He ordered some pizza. There was some talking. [Carmen] introduced me to him, but after that I didn't see him for like a year. I was fourteen at the time. Now I'm fifteen.

"A couple months ago I saw him driving down Dunad going to Sherbondy Park. I was with one of my friends. He stopped me, and he go, “How you doing? I haven't seen you in a while.' Then he gave me his phone numbers: his cell phone, his house phone, everything. He told me if I needed anything to call him.

"He was just talking to me but not like before. My friend Carmen had already told me to look out, that he was trying to holler at me. She told me to watch out for him because he tried to holler at every woman in Opa-locka."

Opa-locka is a small city in Northwest Miami-Dade, founded in the Twenties by famed aviator Glenn Curtiss. Opatishawockalocka was to be a themed community of Persian splendor, a middle-class enclave Rudolph Valentino might choose to settle in if he wanted a cheaply constructed pillbox of a house adorned with a minaret. Each neighborhood was modeled on a different story from The Arabian Nights. City hall, which originally functioned as the developer's office, rose as an Epcot-worthy re-creation of Sultan Kosrouschah's palace. The press releases heralded Opa-locka as the Baghdad of Dade County.

A World War II influx of GIs helped the city prosper -- for a while. White flight following desegregation drove down property values so dramatically that the city now teeters on slum status. Strip malls lie fallow. Industrial detritus unwelcome in other areas gives the city the visual appeal of a four-mile-wide junkyard. Little magic remains in street names such as Sesame, Shakar, and Ali-Baba when those dusty thoroughfares reveal a parade of empty storefronts and boarded-up homes. In 1927 Florida's governor was welcomed at the turreted train station by costumed sheiks on horseback. Today that same station sits locked behind barbed wire, abandoned and weathered like a dead dream.

Those train tracks are valuable, though. Tri-Rail intersects the city, just one of three reasons why Opa-locka is an enviable transportation hub. Tractor trailers can carry their loads away from Opa-locka warehouses on either I-75 or I-95. The Opa-locka Airport is poised for growth. Many cities would pray for Opa-locka's advantages, logistical and otherwise. As unattractive as the dozens of junkyards may be, for example, they generate good money for the city, money that can be used to repair torn-up streets, maintain athletic fields, and otherwise improve the lives of the town's 17,000 residents.

Unfortunately that money is controlled by the city's politicians, a group historically incapable of basic management. Opa-locka has churned through six city managers and six police chiefs since 1994. When Earnie Neal quit in the wake of his sexual-harassment scandal, he awarded himself a six-figure golden parachute, which the commission approved. His replacement collected more than $300,000 when he was fired.

Jenny: "One day I'm at my friend Elizabeth's house. It's far away, and I didn't know how to get home, so I called him and asked him if he could come pick me and my friend Dina up. He was there in like five minutes. Before he dropped me off, he gave me $40. He told me that I have beautiful legs, that he would like to see me in a dress.

"The next day I saw him again. And then he started calling here asking me do I want to go out to Flanigan's and stuff. I used to tell him no. But I called him again when I was at my friend's house and needed a ride home. He picked me up. He gave me $30. He just told me I should use it if I needed to get my hair done or my nails done. Another time when he gave me a ride my friend Glenda was in the car. That's when we kissed. He asked me: “Can I have a kiss?' I said, “Yes.'"

Jenny's friend Glenda: "I just knew him because of Jen. I thought he was the mayor but, like, I'd never seen him in person. Me and Jen were walking home, and he came around and gave us a ride home. They kissed. He kissed her. I just got out of the car and kept walking. He's an old man, and she's young."

For sixteen years Opa-locka was governed by Mayor Robert P. Ingram. During his tenure Ingram won for his city its valuable Tri-Rail station and a new cultural arts center. He also helped cement the city's reputation for political incompetence and skullduggery. Debt piled up so high that city staffers were laid off. The tax rate maxed out just shy of the legal limit. The crime rate rose alarmingly at a time when countywide crime actually had dropped. City commissioners recklessly spent thousands of public dollars as if it were their own personal money. The number of women who claimed to have been sexually harassed by city leaders reached into the double digits.

The mayor tended to award his friends fat retroactive raises or lucrative no-bid consulting contracts -- or even better: lucrative jobs on the city payroll. In one instance Ingram appointed as city manager his good friend Arlington Sands, Jr., then negotiated a contract that paid Sands a lump sum of more than $330,000 after his buddy was fired a mere 22 months into the job. The road that runs past city hall is now named in Ingram's honor.

"Opa-locka used to be a beautiful city, so unique," recalls Evelyn LaRock, a commission gadfly and a city resident for 45 years. "Sixteen years ago we started going down the drain. It's a shame. When you get a couple of bad apples in, honey, they can take the whole bushel."

When Ingram left the city in 1998 to take a seat on the Miami-Dade County School Board, his mayoral successor, Alvin Miller (no relation to Derrick), launched an ambitious plan to clean up the government. "I wouldn't say the city itself was corrupt," Alvin Miller elucidates, "but we had, in my opinion, some corrupt people in charge of the city."

The mayor persuaded the commission to install Tony Robinson as his new city manager. Robinson has worked privately in Opa-locka for the past decade as the proprietor of a cardboard-recycling company. A Howard University graduate, he also served as the city's budget and personnel director from 1991 to 1992. Critics decry his political naiveté, but Robinson maintains an idealistic commitment to clean up the city's culture of corruption. "Opa-locka has bad politics," he explains. "The characters that come forth, the individuals who put themselves out there as being the leaders, are doing a pretty good job snowing residents. The residents are very trusting. They want to have somebody to believe in. They vote for the first guy who comes along and says, “I'm a good guy -- and by the way, I happen to be a minister.'"

Derrick Miller happens to be a minister, an ordained Baptist minister. The Pittsburgh native first surfaced in South Florida as the rapping Preacher Man, "aiming to save the youth of South Florida through words and music," according to a 1992 Miami Herald profile. (Sample lyric: "It's not popular, in our world today/For Godly values, y'all, we've got to pray.") Although he's been steadily employed as an air-traffic controller, Miller came into city politics in the early Nineties as Mayor Ingram's volunteer administrative assistant. When Ingram moved up to the school board, Miller won his own seat on the city commission.

Derrick Miller quickly established himself as the most visible and vocal member of the commission. He proposed naming the Opa-locka-Hialeah Flea Market as the city's official downtown. He nominated fired police chief Craig Collins to the city's planning council even though Collins was suing the city to get his job back. He held a rally to oppose Gov. Jeb Bush's "One Florida" initiative. Two years ago he rotated into the ceremonial position of vice mayor, being sworn into the new post by Miami Commissioner Art Teele.

"He is verbally very visible," says former Opa-locka Police Chief Bob Knapp, a frequent observer of city commission meetings. "He likes to talk, maybe too much. But he asks good questions. To me he always appears to be trying to do the right thing."

During his political rise, Miller hasn't been able to keep his own financial house in order. Actually he hasn't even been able to keep his Dunad Avenue house, which was foreclosed upon in June 2000. According to civil-court files, Miller drives a city car in part because his other vehicle, a Toyota, has been repossessed. He is obligated to pay child support to women in Pennsylvania and Mississippi.

His financial burdens have been alleviated a bit by his city position. All Opa-locka elected officials receive a bevy of perks, including a city car, a city laptop computer, and a city cellular phone. Miller has taken his perks further than most. An examination of his city credit-card usage, which is only supposed to entail purchases of small, work-related items such as office supplies, reveals taxpayer money covering charges at Miami Subs ($18.23), BrandsMart USA ($485), Winn-Dixie ($91.83), Olive Garden ($42.74), Orange Lake Country Club in Kissimmee ($149.85), Blue Note Records in North Miami ($75.51), and Residence Inns in Miller's native Pittsburgh ($1433.92). There are many other expenses charged to the city, but since only the city manager is authorized to spend public money at restaurants and for other networking purposes, most if not all of Miller's charges appear to be in violation of city policy.

In April 1999, Mayor Alvin Miller announced plans for an independent audit of city finances. He promptly received a phone call telling him to "watch his back." According to an article in the Herald, four days after the call the wheels on the mayor's truck were tampered with, causing one tire to blow out while he was driving. The commission eventually voted 4-1 in favor of the audit. Only Derrick Miller voted against.

Jenny Caba: "One time he came to my grandma's house to tell me if we needed anything to call him, that he will then give us stuff -- anything we need. He was telling me he'll buy me a car. He was telling me he can get my license fast.

"Then my grandfather died. I saw [Miller] that day when I was walking to the viewing with my friend Glenda. He asked me if we wanted a ride and he took us to the viewing. That same day he gave me $30. He didn't say nothing, he just gave it to me. I used it to buy flowers. That's when my mom found out."

Yolanda Mercado: "First we went to the police. They took me down to city hall, where I spoke to Tony, the city manager. He came over here to my house with one of his secretaries. We told everything to her, and the police made us sign some papers. The police treated me fine.

"My friends all said the same thing: Don't do nothing. You could get in trouble, you could get hurt, he could do something to your family -- don't press charges on this guy, he's too big. At that time I got scared, but I know this isn't the only time this guy has done this. My friends ask me why I'm trying to get Derrick in trouble. I said I'm not trying to get Derrick in trouble. He caused his own trouble."

Tony Robinson: "She came to me. She came to the police department first, but the police didn't know what to do with it; they were kind of nervous about it. So they brought her to me. I told the police to start a full-scale investigation and don't stop. If this son of a bitch is a child molester, then take him out. There's a few things I don't like in life: I don't like arms dealers, drug dealers, and I don't like child molesters.

"Derrick knew that sooner or later we were going to nail him. We just don't go for that sort of stupid stuff. Opa-locka has too many needs to have corrupt people making decisions."

WFOR-TV (Channel 4) broke the news first, in December 2000. Opa-locka police, the station's reporter said, were investigating whether Miller gave a girl rides in his city car, gave her money, and gave her at least a kiss.

For Miller this was the second public allegation of sexual impropriety since he was elected to the commission. In early 1999 Opa-locka commission secretary Sandra Doughlin informed the city's personnel director that Miller had been making unwanted sexual advances for six years. She never told anyone, she said, until he was elected to the city commission. "On or about December 14, 1998, I let Commissioner Miller know that the relationship has changed and that he was now one of my bosses and that his comments were making me uncomfortable," Doughlin wrote in her complaint. Miller, she said, was particularly enamored of her lips. He also wanted to suck her toes.

Although Doughlin's complaint was supposed to be handled confidentially, she learned it had been discussed with other city staffers. "I never wanted this matter to be made public," she wrote in a February 11, 1999, letter to the city commission. "However, in light of the fact that it is no longer confidential, I have no other alternative than to make you all aware of this matter."

Miller's colleagues on the city commission told Doughlin that whatever the merits of her complaint, they were the wrong people to address because, as an entity, the commission was legally powerless to intervene in the matter. Doughlin still works for the city, now in the personnel department. Last week she said she is contemplating litigation but declined to comment further.

Yolanda Mercado: "My father's family lives up in Tampa. After he died we went to do some rosary up there and left Jenny behind at her friend's. I found out that Derrick had went looking for my daughter to see if she would drop the charges or whatever."

Jenny: "He came over to my friend's house and said, “Well, your mom got me on the news and everything. She got me in the newspaper. He said, can you sign a ... I forget what it's called, a ... an affidavit. At that time I was mad at my mom so I said, “Yeah, I'll do it.' He was telling me what to say. He told me to say the only reason he was giving me the money was to get my hair done and stuff like that, and for my grandfather's flowers. But it wasn't for that. He told me to tell his lawyer that I never gave him a kiss, that we never kissed."

Jenny, in an affidavit provided to the Miami Herald by Derrick Miller: "I have never had sexual relations with Derrick Miller [and he] has never touched me or asked me to do anything.... My mother asked me if I was having sex with Derrick Miller. I told her no. She kept asking, and I finally told her I kissed him. That was not true, and I only told her that to make her mad. My mother said to me, “You should be more intelligent and sue Derrick Miller for $10,000.'"

On December 13, 2000, in the wake of the reports on television and in the Herald, Miller showed up at the Opa-locka City Commission chambers planning, he said at the time, to resign his position. That didn't happen. Instead Miller was one of a majority of three commissioners who voted to suspend Tony Robinson as city manager. None of the three who voted to remove Robinson publicly explained his or her decision. The manager was relieved of his duties. Within the month the commission charged Robinson with eleven counts of wrongdoing, including insubordination and abuse of power. "It was politics more than anything else," says Mayor Alvin Miller. "Anytime you suspend a city manager before even addressing why you are suspending him -- bottom line, that's politics."

Despite the suspension Mayor Miller stood behind his manager. "I was fighting to have Mr. Robinson remain city manager for two reasons. Number one: He was, in my opinion, a disciplinarian who likes to tackle corruption. Number two: I felt we needed a type of stability. With all the city managers Opa-locka has had in the past five years, if you're on the outside, why would you want to come in and invest in our city?"

On January 5, 2001, the commission held a special hearing on Robinson's professional fate. More than 70 pro-Robinson supporters packed the Persian-themed city hall chambers. Included among the supporters was state Sen. Daryl Jones. "I hold him in the highest regard. He has tremendous integrity, and he seeks always to do his best at whatever he does," Jones told the commission.

Robinson was fired anyway.

Yolanda Mercado: "That's when the cops came to my house. They told me [Jenny] signed the form, so there was nothing they could do. I said, “First of all she's a minor; she's not supposed to be signing anything without me being there.'

"I told the police officer that I know I can't do nothing, you know? But boy, if I had real money and a real good lawyer, I would go about doing something. Believe me I would go in there. Somebody big has to go into that city hall and find out what's really going on. 'Cause he's going to keep on doing it. He knows he's going to get away with it, and that's it. He's going to get away with all this."

Derrick Miller declined to be interviewed for this story. He did not return repeated messages left for him at city hall. Last month his wife, Barbara, answered the door at his current address. "He's not here," she said, even though his yellow city car sat out front. Stuck to the windshield were parking decals from Florida Memorial College, the school where Miller's mentor, Robert Ingram, still works. (Ingram did not return phone calls concerning his protégé.)

The mother of Jenny Caba's friend Carmen refused to let her daughter be interviewed for this story. "If you write anything bad about Derrick Miller, then me, Carmen, my son, my husband, and all of my friends will go against you," said the mother, who asked that her name not be used. "If Jenny and her momma want to be bitches and want to get money from a person who is a great person, then they -- they should, they should simply be proud and glad that Jenny has touched the great Derrick Miller's hand.

"I've called Derrick whenever I've had a major problem," the mother continued. "For the past three or four Christmases I don't have nothing to give my kids because I'm on low income and disabled or whatever. Derrick has always come through for me, and not only for me but for a lot of families. For the dinner on Thanksgiving, for the dinner on Christmas. Derrick is such a humane person. He is the only person I have met who gives things unconditionally. He doesn't expect nothing in return. And I'm telling you right now, my three kids are teenagers just like Jenny. I got twin girls who are fifteen and a son who is sixteen, and I have let all three of my kids get in the car with Derrick and go out with Derrick, and never has any of my daughters said that he touched her or nothing.

"And my two daughters are way -- I'm talking way -- prettier than Jenny. They're way more developed. My daughters look like models compared to Jenny."

The mother said Miller had stopped by recently and had mentioned that a New Times reporter was trying to reach him. She told New Times she would call Miller and try to convince him to telephone the paper. He never did.

Last week the Opa-locka City Commission held an emergency meeting to deal with yet another financial crisis. Faced with a massive budget deficit, new city manager Newall Daughtrey proposed laying off 35 employees and reducing the city's work week by five hours for all retained employees. Derrick Miller attended the meeting. Before Daughtrey presented his report, Miller led the commission in prayer, asking the Lord to guide the government "through these turbulent times." After the meeting he politely declined to discuss the Jenny Caba case, the Sandra Doughlin complaint, his financial records, the firing of Tony Robinson, or anything else.

"I'm in counseling now, and my counselors and my attorneys and God have all advised me to sort of stay away from the newspapers, if you can understand what I'm saying," he imparted with a smile. "A lot was crashing down in my life all at once, so I needed to get some counseling. I'd love to talk to you, but I've been told that I shouldn't."

Miller added that he is about to start publishing his own newspaper, concentrating exclusively on good news in Opa-locka.

Despite repeated inquiries over the course of a month, no one in the Opa-locka Police Department would disclose to New Times the status of the Jenny Caba investigation, much less the department's findings. Even Yolanda Mercado has been unsuccessful in her attempts to obtain copies of the police reports generated by her complaint.

Derrick Miller has so far successfully defended himself against the sexual-harassment charges brought by Sandra Doughlin. Last June the Florida Ethics Commission cleared him of "charges that he misused his official position to obtain sexual favors from a city employee," according to a commission press release. According to Doughlin, Miller also has successfully defended himself against a complaint she filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The Opa-locka City Commission has voted to spend up to $10,000 to cover Miller's legal fees.

Jenny: "He drives one of those yellow cop cars. I've been seeing him pass by every day. He never used to pass by here. Now I don't go outside until I have to."

Jenny's younger brother Julio: "He passes by every morning."

Yolanda Mercado: "Tony [Robinson] is a real nice guy. He knows what's going on. I look at it this way: [Miller] knows that Tony knows something. That's why he threw Tony out, you know? Tony wanted to clean up Opa-locka.

"I bet this guy is laughing. “Ha ha, they can't do anything about it.' I bet any money he's laughing."


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