Kesti singled out Candia as a potential target for FBI agents after crossing paths with him in local lobbying circles. The informant believed Candia could provide a bridge to Pizzi, Maroño and Forte, Maroño’s “front man.” Candia has also operated in South Dade, as a lobbyist for Cutler Bay and Homestead.
A prominent South Florida lobbyist said Kesti approached him about two years ago for a suspicious-sounding deal.
“He was peddling a relationship or something,” the lobbyist said. “He might have been working for the feds. I never got a good feeling about the guy.”
Esther Nuhfer, a fundraiser for South Florida politicians ranging from U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio to Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, said Kesti helped raise money for both candidates, and she has a favorable opinion of him.
However, she noted that Kesti rubbed some other lobbyists the wrong way: “He’s not a warm and fuzzy guy.”
Kesti handled lobbying for Palmetto Bay in collaboration with the Tew Cardenas law firm. He helped the village win approval from the U.S. House of Representatives for a proposed fire station on federally owned land.
“You could never tell what circles he was in,” said Cardenas lobbyist Slater Bayliss. “He was a nice guy. He definitely seemed to know what he was doing.”
Former Palmetto Bay Mayor Eugene Flinn said Kesti, who has been married for 13 years to his wife, Maria, was known as a “great family man” who frequently had social gatherings at the couple’s Palmetto Bay home. But he was not overly gregarious.
“He … was always very accessible and on top of the issues that the village had with the feds,” Flinn said. “He’s a pretty quiet, reserved person.”
As part of the undercover operation, Kesti’s first challenge was to introduce the FBI agents posing as Chicago businessmen to Candia and then have them all meet the two mayors. According to the complaint, Candia arranged for one of the agents and Kesti to meet Pizzi for the first time at the mayor’s Miami Lakes office in September 2011. The agent explained that his company, Sunshine Universal, specialized in applying for federal economic development grants for cities.
The company later wrote a $500 check to Candia’s business, Candia Solutions, for setting up the meeting.
In January 2012, the two undercover agents, along with Kesti and Candia, met with Pizzi a second time at a Miami Lakes restaurant to discuss going ahead with the “bogus” grant scheme in Medley, where Pizzi worked as the town attorney. Pizzi agreed to put a resolution on the Medley Town Council’s upcoming agenda to pursue a federal grant from AmeriCorps, a real federal agency.
Days after the meeting, Kesti met Pizzi at the mayor’s office, discussed the grant program and gave him three separate $250 checks made payable to “Reelect Mayor Michael Pizzi” in exchange for putting the item on the agenda.
The following month, Pizzi pushed the passage of the grant resolution through the Medley Council, authorizing Sunshine Universal to apply for the grant on behalf of the town. But Pizzi was upset that neither Kesti nor Candia showed up to the meeting.
“It passed unanimously because I forced them to do it,” Pizzi told Kesti, who recorded their conversation. “But, you almost lost it, because no one was there.”