In March, Sweetwater Mayor Manuel Maroño and lobbyist Jorge Forte dined at a local restaurant with a couple of supposed Chicago businessmen. At the end, the dessert was green as in $10,000 in cash hidden inside a notebook on the table that Forte accepted and split with the mayor, federal authorities say.
In July, Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi met with lobbyist Richard Candia in an office closet at Medley Town Hall, where Pizzi worked as the towns attorney. The reason for the clandestine encounter? For Pizzi to collect an envelope stuffed with a $3,000 cash kickback, according to authorities.
What the mayors and Forte didnt know was that they were targets of an FBI undercover operation and the money exchanging hands was soon to be used as proof of political corruption in Sweetwater, Miami Lakes and Medley.
Miami federal prosecutors said the two mayors and two lobbyists accepted thousands of dollars in bribes in exchange for championing purported federal grant applications for their towns. But in reality, the men were in cahoots, intending to line their pockets with the grant money not to bring dollars into municipal coffers, the feds said.
Many of their conversations were recorded by undercover agents and on phone taps.
The two corruption cases, which started with a confidential tip to the FBI two years ago, were remarkable even by South Floridas standards, because the crackdown snared two municipal mayors and two lobbyists on the same day. Attempts to take down other public officials in the same sting were unsuccessful because they wouldnt bite.
Our democracy suffers when ... elected officials use their power and political influence for personal gain instead of for public good, U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer told a packed press conference.
FBI agents Tuesday arrested Pizzi, 51, and Maroño, 41, at their Town Hall offices on charges of conspiring to commit extortion in their roles as elected officials between 2011 and 2013. Pizzi also was charged with the same misconduct linked to a purported federal grant for Medley, where he is the town attorney.
Pizzi and Maroño made their first appearances in Miami federal court Tuesday. Pizzis bond was set at $100,000, Maroños at $250,000. Both were ordered by Magistrate Judge Andrea Simonton not to contact dozens of other politicians, officials or lobbyists who are potential witnesses.
Pizzis lawyer, Amanda Maxwell, who is handling his defense along with attorney Ben Kuehne, said: We know him as an attorney, a public official and a man of integrity, and today begins his fight for vindication.
Maronos attorney, Armando Rosquete, who works in former U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffeys law firm, declined to comment.
Also arrested on the same charges were lobbyists Forte, 41, the former chief of staff for Maroño in Sweetwater, and Candia, 49, a lobbyist with the Becker & Poliakoff law firm who began cooperating with the FBI after agents approached him in late June. Both lobbyists are scheduled to surrender to authorities Wednesday.
Maroño is accused of working with both lobbyists to break the law. Maroño and Forte allegedly received $40,000 for their parts in the federal grant scheme and an additional $20,000 for making introductions to other public officials on behalf of undercover FBI agents posing as the Chicago businessmen.