Clerk in cash-strapped Opa-locka pocketed $266,784 in building fees, prosecutors say

·3 min read

A former Opa-locka building official was charged with multiple felonies Thursday for pocketing hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of licensing fees and denying the financially strapped city of the much-needed revenue, prosecutors said.

Mary Brown, who spent almost six years as a clerk in the city’s Building and Licensing office, was jailed Thursday morning and charged with single counts of organized scheme to defraud, grand theft and official misconduct of a public servant. Her bond was set at $150,000, and she remained jailed Thursday.

Investigators from the Miami-Dade Police Department’s Public Corruption Unit say that Brown stole $266,784 in licensing fees using a simple but effective method: She failed to record receipts for the purchased building licenses, issued the permits and kept the cash payments.

She stuffed some of the cash she stole in her bra, investigators claim.

Essentially, between the years 2017 and 2019, investigators say Brown handed out building and occupational licenses even though the city didn’t record the purchase of the permits.

Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle couldn’t help noting the financial difficulties Opa-locka has been navigating most of the past decade.

“Given all the fiscal difficulties that the city of Opa-locka has worked hard to overcome, such actions are a betrayal of the residents of the city and of those city workers committed to making Opa-locka stronger,” Fernández Rundle said in a prepared statement.

Opa-locka’s financial issues have been well documented. Federal investigators raided City Hall in 2015 after city leaders were caught shaking down business owners and jailed. A commissioner committed suicide. The city with the highest tax rate in Florida was millions of dollars in debt and near bankruptcy.

Its police department was forced to make enormous cuts. It still has sewage problems. Five years later, a state-installed financial oversight board still monitors the city’s finances.

What makes Brown’s alleged misdeeds so egregious is that the city’s financial history remains seared into the minds of many residents. City Manager John Pate said Thursday that the city has since taken steps to prevent theft of public funds.

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“The city ensured that proper financial controls were implemented after being made aware of the criminal investigation,” he said, though he could not immediately specify the changes that were made.

Pate said Brown resigned in September 2019 after city officials learned she was being investigated. Pate came on board the following month and has since tried to root out corruption, including a crackdown on alleged malfeasance by code enforcement officials.

It wasn’t immediately clear if Brown, who was taken into custody Thursday, had hired an attorney.

Detectives say they were alerted to Brown’s alleged antics in 2019 by a co-worker who said she spotted Brown keeping the cash, hiding some of it in her undergarment and shredding paperwork. The co-worker, prosecutors say, was able to retrieve some of the shredded documents.

Investigators who had subpoenaed Brown’s bank records also noted that the clerk who earned between $34,000 and $40,000 a year between 2014 and 2019, made unusually large deposits into her private accounts during the last three years of her employment that were unrelated to her paycheck.

In 2017, police said Brown deposited $56,349. A year later they found deposits totaling $33,962 in the same account. And though she suddenly resigned in September 2019, Brown, police said, was still able to deposit $26,611 that year.

Investigators were able to determine that Brown stole almost $300,000 by looking at dozens of receipts for occupational and business licenses that are required from a different office in Opa-locka before it reached Brown’s desk.

Brown’s job was to calculate occupational license fees that are due each Sept. 30, by square footage and employees. She was also in charge of verifying payment.