Look, if you’re going to take a bribe, at least make it a cool one. Don’t end up on a list like this because you illegally funneled a ton of taxpayer subsidies to a local gumball vending-machine magnate. Don’t fly to America to receive a boatload of illegal cash inside a public bathroom, as one man on this list, former Colombian anti-corruption chief Luis Gustavo Moreno Rivera, has pleaded guilty to doing. Moreno was sentenced this week to four years in U.S. prison, and will serve even more time when he gets back to his home nation.
Moreno’s case is one of the simultaneously wildest and saddest Miami corruption probes in city history. He damaged an entire nation’s trust in its government and public servants by accepting a manilla envelope full of cash while in a South Florida mall that houses a Cheesecake Factory and an Old Navy. It’s absurd in ant only-in-Miami way. It was a completely unforced error on Moreno’s part that he could very easily have avoided, but was turned up by American federal agents who wiretapped him at a local La Quinta Inn and then in a mall parking lot. Here are five stories that show how darkly funny many of Miami’s local bribery cases can be:
Eleazar Gadea thought that all it takes to get your way with Miami-Dade County officials is a few discretely handed-off $100 bills. He even thought that perhaps the county would look the other way if he wanted to hold a paint party until 4 a.m. despite local zoning laws if only he slipped someone a few thousand dollars.
He now finds himself behind bars on a charge of felony bribery after trying to buy off a county commissioner and undercover agents he thought were county officials.
Gadea is the owner of Rancho Okeechobee, a Cuban restaurant in Hialeah that often hosts concerts and other events. According to the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office and the Miami-Dade Police Department, Gadea became convinced that the county was trying to shut his venue down through zoning violations and code enforcement.
On March 4, Gadea went to speak to his county commissioner, Jose “Pepe” Diaz, about the issues. Diaz wasn’t in that day, so Gadea left an envelope with Diaz’s staff. An assistant opened the package to find $700 in cash, along with a note that read, “Dear Mr. Pepe Diaz: I just want to say thank you very much for your time, help and support and understand Sir, that you have a friend in Rancho Okeechobee.”
The assistant contacted Commissioner Diaz, and he advised his staff to call police.
North Miami Beach, a city that does not work, continues not to work. Fresh off being named New Times‘ second most corrupt city in Miami-Dade County, those pesky NMB’ers have done it again: State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle’s office today announced prosecutors have charged embattled Commissioner Frantz Pierre with bribery and money laundering.
Rundle’s office will hold a news conference at 2:30 p.m. to formally announce the charges, but numerous media outlets report that Pierre, who is 52, got caught taking straight-up bribes from a local strip-club owner. Rundle tweeted minutes ago that the commissioner has been charged with individual counts of bribery, unlawful compensation, organized scheme to defraud, and grand theft, as well as seven counts of money laundering — which seems like a lot of money laundering!
According to charging documents New Times obtained from the State Attorney’s Office, Pierre was allegedly caught taking $20,000 in bribes from Dean Tyler, the owner of Dean’s Gold in North Miami Beach, from December 2013 to September 2014. Prosecutors say that Dean’s Gold wanted the city to give the strip club an extended, after-hours liquor license and that after Pierre took the cash, he voted in favor of the plan. Prosecutors say Tyler funneled $12,500 directly to Pierre and then $9,865 to a charity called Community Hope for Families and Children in Need, which was run by a woman named Jacqueline Alexis. Rundle’s office provided text-messages that showed Pierre asking Tyler for $7,000 after the commissioner claimed he’d gotten into a car accident.
Maybe he should have tried to sweeten the deal with Heat tickets?
Eric Scott Topalian, 23, of Boca Raton, was charged with possession of a controlled substance on Saturday, but tried to get out of the charges by bribing the arresting officer with a pair of tickets to Sunday’s Jets vs. Dolphins game. The judge who set Topalian’s bond apparently wasn’t too impressed with the bribe.
“Have you been watching the Dolphins? No one’s going to go to that game,” Palm Beach County Judge Timothy P. McCarthy said at the bond hearing according to the Palm Beach Post.
Topalian began to defend the value of his bribe, but Judge McCarthy cut him off and reminded him that isn’t a good idea considering he’s innocent until proven guilty.
“Miami-Jets tickets aren’t worth a damn,” concluded McCarthy.
In fact, McCarthy was so unimpressed by the value of the bribe that he actually reduced Topalian’s bond to $6,000.
One of the firefighters involved in the first case, Henry L. Bryant, appeared to have his hands full of corruption. Last December, he discussed with an undercover agent the possibility of recruiting police officers to help protect the transportation of cocaine. Bryant took the bait and told the undercover agent that not only would Miami-Dade Officer Daniel L. Mack provide protection but also Bryant would move the coke in his own vehicle.
In December, the FBI says, Bryant transported nine kilos of what he thought was cocaine in his vehicle. He moved ten more kilos of fake coke in January. Mack, meanwhile, used his Miami Beach police cruiser to protect Bryant.
The pair received $25,000 for the scheme, the feds allege.
Luis Gustavo Moreno Rivera, the man formerly in charge of weeding crooked people out of Colombia’s very corrupt government, was sentenced yesterday to four years in federal prison for accepting an envelope full of bribery cash inside a Dolphin Mall bathroom.
The case is as wild as Miami crimes get. While working as the top anti-corruption cop in Colombia, Moreno agreed to tip off the targets of investigations and taint criminal cases for a nominal — and illegal — fee. The scheme worked well until the former governor of the Colombian region of Cordoba, Alejandro Lyons Muskus, told U.S. and Colombian authorities about Moreno’s scheme.
A middleman from Moreno’s office had approached Lyons, who was being investigated for corruption, in 2016. The intermediary agreed to provide a bunch of confidential statements from the investigation if the governor forked out 100 million Colombian pesos (about $34,500). Lyons could then have used those documents to taint the case or get ahead of investigators.
Moreno’s bribery squad handled the case with the trademark tact and secrecy of Miami financial crimes. They hung out at a roadside motel and then tried to hand Moreno’s people a wad of cash in the Dolphin Mall can. In early 2017, while on a flight from Colombia to Miami, where his wife would give birth after a high-risk pregnancy, Lyons alerted U.S. investigators to the scheme.
Then, on May 26, 2017, Lyons agreed to meet Moreno’s right-hand man, a lawyer named Leonardo Luis Pinilla Gomez, at the Dolphin Mall, the sprawling shopping complex in West Miami-Dade. Lyons agreed to wear a wire and U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency cops took up posts nearby. Pinilla demanded 400 million Colombian pesos and warned Lyons his own corruption arrest was imminent. Lyons also began communicating with Moreno through the messaging app WhatsApp. The group agreed to meet the following month to hand over the cash.
The next month, Moreno flew to the U.S. to deliver an anti-corruption lecture. He met with Pinilla and Lyons at a La Quinta Inn, where he was recorded hollering that he was worried about being recorded or double-crossed. (He was correct.) The next day, the trio gathered at the Dolphin Mall. This time, Lyons handed Pinilla a manilla envelope with $10,000 in marked U.S. bills inside. Pinilla then huddled with Moreno inside a bathroom. The pair emerged and the money eventually made it into Moreno’s hands.
On June 18, while Moreno was flying back to Colombia, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents found the cash and photographed it. Moreno was then arrested on an Interpol “red notice” weeks later. He was extradited to the United States and charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering.