MIAMI (CBSMiami) – The top code compliance inspector for the city of Miami Beach has been charged, along with 6 other people, in a scheme to allegedly extort money from a South beach club owner. An FBI sting snared 5 Miami Beach code compliance officers and two city firefighters who prosecutors claim demanded cash for looking the other way.
The charges were announced Wednesday by Wilfredo Ferrer, US Attorney for the Southern District of Florida.
“Jose Alberto, the lead code compliance administration from Miami Beach, solicited a cash pay off from a Miami Beach night club owner,” said Ferrer. ”They are charged for their participation in a scheme to extort cash payments for south beach night club in exchange for protection services.”
According to the charges, in June of last year Alberto, in his code-compliance role, offered to ignore a large fine for a code violation at the club in return for cash.
“The purpose of these cash payoffs was very clear, it was to allow the night club to continue operating and to avoid potential code violations,” said Ferrer
The club owner went to the FBI, which set up an investigation and sting operation where an undercover agent posed as the club owner. Prosecutors said he made a series of cash payments to Alberto and to 6 others to allow the club to remain open and to protect against any possible future violations.
The meetings were recorded, and the FBI said Miami Beach firefighter Henry Bryant, one of the alleged co-conspirators, claimed he and Alberto had worked together “for about twelve years on every little gig that [they] had.”
On tape, Bryant bragged about accepting “four grand” from another business to overlook violations, keeping them open for 4 years.
In the course of the FBI sting, the men charged in the alleged conspiracy accepted bribes in excess of $25 thousand from the undercover agents in the form of cash payments.
Charged along with Alberto and Bryant were code compliance officers Willie E. Grant, Orlando E. Gonzalez, Ramon D. Vasallo, and Vicente L. Santiesteban, along with a second Miami Beach firefighter, Chai D. Footman.
All 7 were charged with a single count of conspiracy to commit extortion as a public official, and could spend up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
“When government officials misuse their offices and abuse their power to line their own pockets and satisfy their greed, they erode the public’s trust in good and efficient government,” Ferrer said. “I encourage victims to come forward, report shakedowns of this kind, and help us shine a light on backroom corruption.”
“It is very sad that this happened, but it is very good that we are catching people committing criminal acts,” said Miami Beach Mayor Mattie Bower.
Bryant was also charged in a second, unrelated case involving cocaine trafficking and a Miami-Dade police officer. Officer Daniel Mack was charged along with Bryant in an alleged scheme to protect and transport what they thought were kilos of cocaine.
The separate investigation began when Bryant allegedly had a conversation with one of the undercover FBI agents where he said he knew cops who could help move drugs and protect the drug dealers. Prosecutors said Bryant even offered to personally transport cocaine in his own vehicle.
After making a deal with the undercover agent posing as a club owner, Bryant allegedly made two deliveries in December 2011 and January 2012, escorted by Officer Mack using his Miami-Dade patrol car, while he was in uniform. In all, the two are charged with moving almost 20 kilos of fake cocaine, and for taking payments of more than $25 thousand in return.
The two men have been charged with intent to distribute more than 5 Kilos of cocaine, a charge which would send each of them to prison for life if convicted.
“When corrupt officials break the law for their own personal gain, they breach the public’s trust and violate the very principles they have sworn to uphold,” said Dena E. Choucair, Acting Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Miami Division.
Miami Beach City Manage Jorge Gonzalez released a statement about the accusations late Wednesday.
“I am extremely disappointed by today’s events. Abuse of the public trust by our employees simply will not be tolerated. As I have always done in the past, I will swiftly and aggressively pursue allegations of misconduct and corruption within our organization, and continue to work steadfastly with law enforcement to hold individuals accountable and restore the public trust. Today, I am ordering a full investigation into code and fire prevention cases handled by the accused beyond those targeted by this investigation. At the same time, we are undertaking a thorough review of policies and procedures in our code compliance and fire prevention operations in order to implement any necessary reforms needed to protect against future such incidents. We will work with law enforcement to determine if there are other issues that require action. It is important that employees, residents and business owners alike report conduct that is not consistent with the integrity we expect of our public servants. To assist in that regard, in coming days we will establish an abuse hotline for anonymous tips to be reported, so that they may be turned over to appropriate authorities for investigation.”