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Jury awards $3 million to garbage contractor in Opa-locka corruption lawsuit

Miami Herald logo Miami Herald 9/20/2022 Tess Riski, Miami Herald
The old Opa-locka City Hall. © DANIEL BOCK/Miami Herald/TNS The old Opa-locka City Hall.

A jury has awarded a $3 million judgment to a garbage contractor that sued Opa-locka in 2017 alleging corruption and extortion in a city that has for years been plagued with financial and political turmoil.

After a 5-day civil trial, the jury returned the verdict on Friday. They found that the city failed to act in good faith with Universal Waste Services of Florida, Inc. (UWS), the contractor that sued. The verdict is the latest blow to a city that has been under state financial oversight for the past six years and a reminder of its history of corruption, including a 2016 FBI probe that led to the conviction of several city officials.

Representatives of UWS made accusations of extortion against former City Commissioner Terence Pinder, who died in an apparent suicide in 2016, two days before he was scheduled to turn himself in on state bribery charges.

“One of the messages in the verdict is that, in addition to the public officials risking jail time, the cities are going to risk multimillion-dollar judgments if they are not vigilant in making sure this type of stuff doesn’t happen,” said attorney Michael Pizzi, who represented UWS. “I think the entire courtroom was stunned by the explicit attempts by Opa-locka officials to extort bribe payments in exchange for extending a contract. You could hear a pin drop.”

Pizzi was referring to testimony from UWS operations manager Robert Turitto, who is also a former New York Police Department sergeant.

Turitto testified that his company invested $3.5 million in new equipment after agreeing to take over the contract from the previous garbage collector for the approximate year and a half left on the city’s contract with the previous company. Once UWS assumed the contract and began to work, Turitto testified, the city was going to grant a 3-year contract extension. Without the promise of that extension, he said, UWS would not have invested in a new fleet of trucks, cans and other equipment, according to trial transcripts.

But the city eventually canceled the contract after UWS refused to pay a six-figure sum, Turitto testified. That left UWS in financial shambles, he said.

According to Turitto’s testimony, he and UWS CEO Joseph Spiezio III, who died in 2021, met with Pinder at the UWS yard in 2015. Pinder allegedly told them that the contract was a good opportunity for UWS, but that the company needed to “share the wealth.” He then promised them five city commission votes in favor of the contract extension in exchange for a $125,000 payment, Turitto alleged.

“Obviously, my jaw drops,” Turitto testified in court last week.

During two subsequent meetings, Turitto testified, the company again refused Pinder’s offer. After those three meetings, he said, the city denied a contract extension for UWS and eventually awarded the contract to a competitor.

While the jury verdict favored the contractor, jurors also found in Opa-locka’s favor for seven out of nine of the city’s affirmative defenses, including that UWS fraudulently induced a contract by omission; that UWS agreed to cancel its residential and commercial solid waste contracts to substitute new contracts in their place; and that UWS was required to provide a performance bond to the city but failed to do so.

Attorney Miguel De Grandy, who represented the city of Opa-locka in the trial, said the findings for those affirmative defenses negate the $3 million judgment.

“One cannot recover on a contract that one has fraudulently induced to enter into,” De Grandy said. “We will be proposing a judgment to the court that is consistent with the verdict.”

De Grandy said the city will be filing “the appropriate motions,” but declined to specify what those filings will entail. He added that he is not aware of the city’s finances, so he does not know whether or not Opa-locka has the ability to pay the $3 million.

Pizzi said he intends to collect on the verdict: “Our expectation is that the city will pay every penny of it.”

©2022 Miami Herald. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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