Opa-locka Commissioner Took Money to Ward Off Police, Ethics Commission Says

Former Opa-locka mayor and city commissioner John B. Riley
Former Opa-locka mayor and city commissioner John B. Riley Photo by City of Opa-locka
Update, June 9: The Commission on Ethics has issued a final order on Riley's case, ordering Riley to pay a $1,000 fine, plus another $1,000 for investigative costs.

When Opa-locka police officer Daniel Kelly responded to a call at Garden Apartments in January 2017, he was met by then-city commissioner John B. Riley, who told him the police had no business there. Now, four years later, Riley has been found guilty of two ethics violations after it was discovered that he was being paid by the apartment's owners to deal with city business while acting in an official capacity.

Miami-Dade County's Commission on Ethics and Public Trust (COE) last week found Riley, a former mayor and commissioner in the corruption-plagued city of Opa-locka, in violation of two county ethics rules after a years-long investigation and internal COE trial.

According to records of the trial provided to New Times by the COE, on January 12, 2017, Officer Kelly responded to a call from a woman named Vivian Smith, who said she'd been locked out of her unit at the Garden Apartments building at 13436 NW 30th Ave. When Kelly arrived, he said, he was approached by Riley, who drove up to his squad car and rolled down his window to inform Kelly that what was happening with Smith was a civil dispute, not a criminal one, and that the cops shouldn't be there.

Smith, who said she witnessed the interaction, told the COE that Riley proceeded to "go off" on Kelly and tell him the situation was none of his business.

After former Opa-locka Police Chief James Dobson complained about Riley meddling in police affairs, the COE investigated and found that Riley had been working as a consultant for CT Agency, the property manager of Garden Apartments, and for Glorieta Gardens Apartments LTD, the owner of Garden Apartments, since 2013, including during his tenure as a city commissioner from 2016 to 2018. 

From 2013 to 2016, Riley received monthly payments of $1,500 from CT Agency to work as an "on-call consultant" to deal with city issues, according to the COE complaint. Invoices from Riley to Garden Apartments described "24-hour on-call consultant services for the Garden Apartment/Creative Homes II to resolve any and all issues and or problems with local government...."

Riley reported his financial arrangement with Garden Apartments to the city in 2015 and 2016 but failed to disclose the $7,500 he received from Glorieta Gardens Apartments LTD in 2017 while he was a commissioner, including a payment of $1,500 sent the day after his interaction with Officer Kelly.

In the complaint against Riley filed in 2019, COE attorneys accused him of three violations of county ethics rules: exploiting his official position by interfering with police business, failing to disclose his financial gain from Garden Apartments in 2017, and taking employment that conflicted with his elected position because it involved dealing with the city on behalf of his employer.

Under Miami-Dade County ethics rules, "No [county employee] shall accept other employment which would impair his or her independence of judgment in the performance of his or her public duties."

In motions to dismiss the case, Riley's attorney argued that he didn't violate any rules because he didn't order Kelly to do anything. Riley's lawyer argued that his client simply gave the officer advice by telling him that the caller, Smith, was a sub-leaser at the apartment, and that subletting was illegal because Garden Apartments was made up of Section 8 housing. Riley denied yelling at the officer or ordering him to leave.

Riley's attorney also argued that Riley couldn't have exploited his power in the incident because it was not an issue that came before the city commission.

"The complaint alleges no act on the part of Respondent [Riley] taken in his official capacity," stated a May 2019 motion to dismiss.

But in a subsequent filing in December 2019, Riley asked to pause the case so he could ask the City of Opa-locka to pay for his attorney because the allegations involved actions he took as a commissioner.

"All three alleged violations arise from Respondent's service as a city commissioner in January of 2017. Mr. Riley's alleged actions fall squarely with the scope of his office as City Commissioner," stated a December 2019 motion from Riley.

The city did not grant Riley's request to pay for his legal counsel.

Riley attempted to remedy the failure to disclose his 2017 income from Glorieta Gardens by amending his financial disclosure this past January. Riley's attorney, James Greason, tells New Times Riley did not include his employment with Garden Apartments because his agreement with them ended in early 2017, so he did not think he had to include it by the time he filed his disclosure in 2018.

After a lengthy trial, ethics commissioners on May 21 found Riley in violation of two out of the three charges against him — failure to disclose his financial arrangement, and conflicting employment. The commission is set to vote on penalties at its June 9 meeting. The COE can impose fines ranging from $500 to $2,000 for government officials found to have violated multiple ethics rules.

Greason says he intends to appeal the guilty finding with the Third District Court of Appeals.

"I have to appeal. I've known him since he was a mayor. He's one of these public-service guys who's not in it for the money. He's not one of these grifter politicians," Greason says.

The consulting-gig conflict wasn't the first time Riley came under fire as an elected official in Opa-locka.

While serving as mayor in the mid-'80s, Riley was voted out of office after being investigated for allegations of accepting a $5,000 bribe and criticized by residents for exceeding his travel allowance by more than $11,000. Riley denied the bribery claims and was never charged. And he defended his spending, saying it was necessary for the city's economic development.

Three decades later, as a city commissioner in 2018, Riley sued then-Gov. Rick Scott to regain access to his expense account and city car after Opa-locka found itself $8 million in debt and was declared to be in a state of financial emergency.

Riley's consulting client, Glorieta Gardens Apartments LTD, has its own checkered history in Opa-locka.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio ordered an investigation of the property owner in 2018 after numerous complaints of "slum-like" conditions even after the owners received federal money to rehabilitate the Section 8 housing. An asset manager for the property told the Miami Herald that same year that they would welcome Rubio and his staff to meet in person and address his concerns.

It's unclear whether such a meeting occurred. But last year properties owned by Glorieta Gardens again made the news when frequent flooding left tenants virtually swimming through their apartments during hard rains.
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Joshua Ceballos is staff writer for Miami New Times. He is a Florida International University alum and a born-and-bred Miami boy.
Contact: Joshua Ceballos