When Otis T. Wallace became mayor of dirt-poor Florida City back in 1984, the desegregation hero was one of the first black politicians elected in the entire state. Nearly 30 years later, however, Wallace is still in office but his leadership has lost its luster.
A two-month investigation by the New Times has unearthed serious accusations of corruption against the mayor-for-life. In sworn testimony to the FBI and Miami-Dade Police, one of Wallace's own employees claimed the mayor routinely accepted bribes and traded his vote for land worth $1 million. New Times has also discovered that the FBI is currently investigating claims by Wallace's political opponents that the mayor employs a convicted felon to influence votes.
Wallace was never charged and adamantly denies all the allegations. Read about the investigation, and Wallace's transformation from small-town savior to Florida City strongman, in this week's feature.
Our investigation, which draws on dozens of interviews as well as FBI and Miami-Dade Police Public Corruption Investigations Bureau records, found the following:
- Wallace repeatedly called the police on his own sister, Gayle Marshall, and had her booted from their mother's house
- Despite making what was until recently a meager public official's salary, Wallace now owns at least 15 properties worth several million dollars. The crown jewel is a $1.7 million waterfront house on Key Largo. He also owns land across the state and in Hawaii.
- In 2009, Wallace's own public works director Darin Baldwin Sr., told the FBI and Miami Dade Police that the mayor was corrupt. Baldwin claimed that Wallace routinely accepted bribes of $5,000 and $10,000 in exchange for permits and contracts.
- Baldwin also claimed that the mayor sold his vote in exchange for land worth $1 million, which he allegedly used to buy the property in the Keys.
- Although there is no record of the shady land deal, New Times has discovered that in 2002, Tomas Mesa -- Wallace's director of building and zoning -- bought two parcels of industrial-use land in Florida City. Mesa had the land rezoned as residential in June 2003, and sold it for four times as much ($810,000) just weeks later.
- Finally, two of Wallace's political opponents claim that the mayor uses a convicted felon to manipulate absentee ballots in order to stay in power. New Times interviewed several Florida City residents who admitted that the felon helped them fill out their ballots and gave "suggestions" on who to vote for. We also confirmed with half a dozen locals that they have spoken to the FBI about possible absentee voter fraud.
Mesa and Wallace both deny the accusations. Mesa, who left Florida City government in 2004 for a job in real estate, calls his land deal a "good purchase" and claims -- contrary to city records -- that it was rezoned after he sold it.
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Wallace, meanwhile, calls Baldwin a "disgruntled employee" and his political opponents sore "losers." He says he has never been questioned by the authorities.
"Just because a guy that I fired wants to connect me to a land deal, doesn't mean that I should know anything about it," he says.