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."

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."

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Michael E. Miller was a staff writer at Miami New Times for five years. His work for New Times won many national awards, including back-to-back-to-back Sigma Delta Chi medallions. He now covers local enterprise for the Washington Post.