Opa-locka's New City Manager Avoided State Oversight to Pay Himself, Whistleblower Says

photo by Tim Elfrink
In the middle of a decaying central square of closed junk stores and shuttered barbershops, Opa-locka’s gleaming, $8 million Town Center was eerily empty Wednesday morning. That’s because every elected official in town was huddled in a room with Florida Inspector General Eric Miller, the man tasked with unraveling a web of corruption so convoluted the governor has used emergency powers to take over the city’s budget.

Inside the meeting room, Opa-locka’s point man is new City Manager Ed Brown, appointed in July to clean up the mess after his predecessor, along with two other officials and the mayor’s son, was indicted. A city commissioner killed himself rather than face charges.

But a new lawsuit raises serious questions about Brown’s own conduct — and suggests that more corruption charges will likely be handed down very soon. Charmaine Parchment, the city’s former finance director, says Brown fired her in August after she blew the whistle on him for a laundry list of improprieties. Among the wrongs: circumventing the same state oversight board that Miller oversees.

“The city administration in Opa-locka has no intention of changing,” Michael Pizzi, Parchment's lawyer, says. “Disrespect of employees and illegal conduct are the standard."

Neither Brown nor Mayor Myra Taylor responded to messages left in person at their offices Wednesday morning. Opa-locka Police Chief James Dobson also didn’t reply to a message and an email about the new allegations.

The Northwest Miami-Dade city of 15,000 has a long history that began with whimsical Arabian-themed buildings but more recently has been dominated by poverty, corruption, and violent crime.

Since 1996, when she was first elected to office, the strong-willed, curly-haired Myra Taylor has been a political force in the city. She and her husband, the cane-wielding Bishop John Taylor, have survived bankruptcy filings and federal tax fraud charges, which forced her to briefly resign in 2004 before she was sentenced to probation.

In 2010, Bishop Taylor and two family members were arrested for violating campaign laws.

But Opa-locka’s corruption problems went nuclear in 2015, when the Miami Herald detailed how Mayor Taylor and her cronies had turned the city’s water and building departments into elaborate kickback and extortion schemes. They spent millions on pet projects as the city spiraled toward insolvency. Taylor was accused of trying to divert $150,000 in sewer repair funds to her husband after he lost his church to debt collectors.

In June 2016, Gov. Rick Scott declared a financial emergency and required the city to submit all spending reports to a state oversight board. By the end of last year, the feds had indicted three top city leaders and Corleon Taylor, the mayor’s son; Commissioner Terence Pinder slammed his car into a tree, killing himself the day before he was to be charged.

The inside story of what really happened, though, is best told by Charmaine Parchment, who served in city hall through much of the mess.

Born in Jamaica, Parchment moved with her family to Miami when she was young. She made her way to Tuskegee University in Alabama, where she worked as a waitress to pay her way through college. She eventually earned bachelor's and master's degrees in accounting and an MBA, and worked for the university before moving back to Miami. After a stint in the banking industry, she took a job as a grant writer with Opa-locka in 2009.

At city hall, she worked her way up to finance director, a gig that paid $90,000 per year. Though she declined to be interviewed, her 21-page lawsuit says her own troubles began when she agreed in early 2016 to cooperate with the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in their widening probe into Opa-locka's finances. After City Attorney Vincent Brown learned she had agreed to help the feds, he outed her in an email to 180 city employees, she says. Soon her name appeared in a Miami Herald piece about city officials cooperating with the probe.

Parchment's suit contends that publicizing her role in the investigation placed her “in danger and at risk for severe retaliation and intimidation by high-ranking city officials.”

Parchment contends she helped oversee a probe into the city’s water services, which showed that an astounding 80 percent of meters in town didn’t work. In May 2016, she penned a letter warning that Opa-locka finances were close to collapse — the town had only $700,000 in its general fund and a looming $4.5 million deficit. The Herald picked up on the letter and published a story about its damning findings.

Then she spent the summer helping investigate various other financial crimes — $150,000 in unauthorized sick and vacation time that had been mysteriously approved and $39,000 in cash payouts that City Manager David Chiverton had given himself.

But Parchment says her most troubling findings concerned the man who took over as city manager after Chiverton was indicted: Ed Brown. As early as May 2016, Parchment alleges, she discovered that Brown had been given a bogus, $30,000 so-called consulting contract in exchange for not talking to the feds.

“She blew the whistle on what was essentially a phony job for Eddie Brown... to keep [him] silent about his knowledge of widespread corruption in the city,” the suit claims.

Parchment says she refused to authorize the contract, further straining her relationships in city hall. The mayor tried to fire her, Parchment says, while she continued to aid state and federal prosecutors in their investigation. This past April, she told FDLE agents everything she knew about financial crimes in the city, and in June, she gave state prosecutors a sworn statement.

Amid the swirling probes, the city commission in July narrowly voted 3-2 — led by Mayor Taylor — to approve Brown as the new city manager over concerns from the state oversight board. Parchment says she has extensive evidence of wrongdoing on his part, including her claim spelled out in the lawsuit that he served “as a ‘bag man’ who delivered cash bribes to commissioners.”

(Pizzi, Parchment's attorney, says his legal team, which also includes Douglas Jeffrey and David Reiner, is prepared to back up those claims with evidence in court, though he declined to share any other documents with New Times.)

But Parchment says the last straw for her came just after Brown’s appointment. She claims the new city manager ordered her to approve payroll for him retroactive to July 17 although his hire date was ten days later. When she told him the state oversight board would have to sign off, she alleges, he “went behind her back” and ordered payroll staff to approve it anyway. She says she later learned Brown similarly authorized “money that was not budgeted” to pay cops for off-duty work.

The federal probes were heating up, Parchment says. In the first week of August, she was subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury. And on August 17, Deputy City Manager William Green “directed and physically stopped” her staff from compiling records for the grand jury and told her to stop cooperating with the FBI, she contends. Green also ordered her to sign off on the illegal off-duty payments to cops, and he told her to stop working with the state oversight board because there was a new "sheriff in town."

The next day, Parchment asked Brown for a meeting. She also sent a memo to city officials, which Pizzi shared with New Times, where she complained of being “targeted for retaliation” over her cooperation with investigators.

“At this point, I am requesting that I receive protection from retaliation,” she wrote. “To allow me to be harassed and retaliated against for upholding the integrity of the City’s finances is wrong.”

This past August 22, Brown fired her. In a memo, he claimed she “did not possess the skill set to perform proficiently and effectively.” Parchment says the truth is much simpler: Brown and his allies were furious that she continued to blow the whistle on their crimes.

“Parchment was a shining example of how government employees should uphold the public trust and put honesty and integrity first,” Pizzi says. “In the corrupt City of Opa-locka, Charmaine Parchment's decision to be honest and protect the financial integrity of the City of Opa-locka got her fired.”