Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Florida’s disgraceful distinction: corruption

Two popular South Florida mayors get popped in a federal corruption sting. We would like to say this is the exception to the rule — except the entire state of Florida leads the nation in being ethically challenged. It’s a disgraceful distinction.

As we noted in a January 2011 editorial when Gov. Rick Scott was sworn into office, the Sunshine State has a dark cloud extending from the Panhandle to the Keys because state ethics laws are too lax and the punishments too lenient. A statewide grand jury empanelled by Mr. Scott’s predecessor, Charlie Crist, found that U.S. attorneys’ offices nationwide charged 1,082 people with public corruption in 2009, and Florida’s state and local officials made up more than one-third of that group.

A fundamental problem is that state legislators and even mayors also can serve as lobbyists to peddle their clients’ goods and services to other governments. The list of politically connected double dippers keeps growing, and it’s all perfectly legal. And wrong.

The latest corruption scandal is unprecedented in that the cases involving Sweetwater Mayor Manuel “Manny” Maroño and Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi, both so-called fiscal conservatives, were snared — along with two lobbyists — on the same day by federal officials based on a tip the FBI received two years ago.

Apparently there were other local public officials who were approached by federal agents posing as Chicago businessmen to participate in a kickback scheme involving federal grants, but those officials did not take the bait. Good for them. Good for our community.

After the corruption cases pursued by the FBI and local officials in Palm Beach and Broward counties the past several years, where local commissioners and school board members were convicted of stuffing money into their pockets and purses tied to shady land deals, one would think that officials in Miami-Dade County would have figured out that the feds are on the lookout.

Of course, the legal system will determine if Maroño and Pizzi are guilty or not. Gov. Scott has, as required by law, suspended them from office. But one has to wonder why the two mayors got caught up in a federal sting, with wiretaps and hidden microphones capturing the alleged scheming.

Both men’s attorneys say their clients are innocent. On Wednesday the two lobbyists — Jorge Forte, Maroño’s former chief of staff, and Richard Candia, whose clients include local universities — were granted bond in the kickback and bribery scheme.

The federal indictment is eye-popping. In March, Maroño and Forte dined with the supposed Chicago businessmen, who delivered $10,000 in cash hidden in a notebook, money the mayor and his lobbyist pal split, federal authorities say.

Under Florida’s slippery ethics laws, Pizzi also works as the Medley town attorney. In July, he met with Candia in a closet, of all places, at Medley Town Hall. Pizzi got $3,000 in a cash kickback, federal officials charge.

The mayors and their lobbyist pals allegedly received thousands of dollars in bribes to champion federal grant applications for Sweetwater, Miami Lakes and Medley — money that would not be spent on public services but on their own personal wants. Maroño, according to authorities, was being enticed to look for other officials to join the scheme.

Whatever the outcome of this case, it is far from over. If Gov. Scott and the Legislature don’t toughen ethics laws, it will be up to Florida’s voters to show them the way.

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