Newly divorced and struggling financially, lobbyist Richard Candia fit the profile of an easy mark for an FBI informant.
“Candia,” an FBI criminal complaint said, “was believed to have contacts with public officials willing to accept bribery and kickbacks.”
It was a spot-on assessment.
From 2011 until this summer, Candia played a crucial role in recruiting Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi and Sweetwater Mayor Manny Maroño into a kickback sting involving purported federal grants that was orchestrated by the FBI.
Along with Maroño’s right-hand man, Jorge Luis Forte, the men were charged Tuesday and Wednesday in one of Miami-Dade’s biggest corruption busts in years.
For many seasoned politicos and insiders, the corruption wasn’t a shock.
But Candia’s involvement was.
From Tallahassee to Miami-Dade, Candia had a sterling reputation among public officials and fellow lobbyists in a business that’s all about reputations and personal relationships.
With a mop of dark hair that belied his 48 years, the hard-working Candia was seemingly everywhere in the halls of state and local government.
Candia was known as an honorable, good-natured and humble man. He was well-liked and trusted.
But one fellow lobbyist, Michael Kesti, knew another side of Candia.
Kesti, the Miami Herald reported Friday, was the confidential informant who in May 2011 tipped the FBI off to Candia as someone who was potentially corruptible.
The FBI criminal complaints against the four defendants read like a true-crime script in parts, excerpting secret recordings of the men as they allegedly schemed with Kesti and undercover FBI agents masquerading as sleazy businessmen from Chicago. Candia, busted before the end of the scheme, “flipped’’ for the feds and wore a wire to ensnare Pizzi.
[In a statement released Saturday exclusively to the Miami Herald/El Nuevo Herald, Pizzi said he was innocent of any wrongdoing, saying he “accepted no money inappropriately or illegally from anyone, ever.” Story, 1B]
Before that point, the transcripts show, Candia had a shrewd understanding of the two politicians and Forte, who is accused of acting as Maroño’s bagman taking illicit payoffs on behalf of the mayor.
Forte was Maroño’s “front, where he … needs a front … his filter where he needs a filter,” Candia said at one point.
Candia identified Maroño as ripe for the conspiracy from the very beginning.
“[Maroño]’s not gonna be shy, shy to ask for sh-t,” Candia told the agents in a meeting on Sept. 23, 2011. “I mean, there will be no end.”
Days before, the undercover FBI agents met with Candia to make clear that what they were doing was illegal and that they were motivated by greed.
Under the scheme, the fake company would apply for a federal grant on behalf of the city. The conspirators — not the municipality — would then divvy up the proceeds.
“The play here is for the money,” one agent told Candia, “for us to get the money and be able to use the money, you know, and just make money,”
Candia didn’t get much in the end: $5,500. Pizzi’s alleged take: $6,750. Maroño and Forte: $60,000, the FBI says.