By Michael Sallah and @jayhweaver
Just after sunset, Commissioner Luis Santiago pulled up to the gates of the sprawling storage lot in Opa-locka and motioned for Frank Zambrana to step inside the black, city-leased Ford Expedition.
The two had met privately before, but this time it was different.
With a handgun on the console, Santiago reached over to his passenger and frisked him for any recording devices.
“He told me that he was not going to take any chances,” Zambrana said.
With no one else in sight, Zambrana said he took out $500, counted it, then passed it to the 55-year-old politician in yet another secret payment to ensure Zambrana would get a license to open his heavy equipment business in 2013.
It wasn’t the last payment he would have to make for a license that cost just $150.
In the past three years, the father of five paid tens of thousands of dollars to Santiago and a host of other prominent city officials in what exposed an organized network that turned the levers of government into a cash generator for themselves and others, the Miami Herald has learned.
After months of making under-the-table payments for a business license, Zambrana turned to the FBI.
In one of the most compelling public corruption cases in Miami-Dade in years, Zambrana taped secret meetings while he paid cash bribes to public officials in City Hall, at remote parking lots and even in a popular night spot, according to confidential sources.
Zambrana is among the lead figures in a grand jury investigation that could result in the indictment of at least a dozen people, including Santiago and City Manager David Chiverton, on racketeering charges, according to sources who spoke to the Herald on the condition of anonymity.
“I knew it was bad, but I didn’t know it was that bad,” said Steven Barrett, a former vice mayor who once sued the city over questionable billing practices for water and sewer services. “This city is run like the mob.”