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Mayor of one town, lawyer for another? Is that a problem?

 

cveiga@MiamiHerald.com

In Miami Lakes, Michael Pizzi held sway as mayor of the manicured town.

In Medley, he delivered legal advice as town attorney.

But in both municipalities, Pizzi used his public office to steer business to a company he thought would pay him kickbacks, according to the FBI.

Pizzi was arrested Tuesday on bribery charges stemming from an undercover investigation into public corruption. Sweetwater Mayor Manuel Maroño and two lobbyists also were arrested.

If what the feds say is true, Pizzi’s unique position in two different governments is what helped him carry out a scheme to fleece federal grant money.

And yet, Pizzi was not prohibited from holding both offices, according to the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust. In fact, Miami Lakes Councilman Tony Lama said it was never made an issue there.

“That has not come up on the dais with any of my colleagues,” Lama said.

The Miami Lakes mayorship is supposed to be a part-time job, paying $18,000 a year plus a $600 monthly car allowance. As attorney for Medley, he received $192,000.

In 2012, a citizen charged that it was a unethical for Pizzi to serve in two cities. After being denied a business license in Medley for not meeting building code standards, Elizabeth Veliz filed a complaint in which she theorized “perhaps if her landlord had lived in Miami Lakes, where Mr. Pizzi served as Mayor, Mr. Pizzi might have approved her business application the Town of Medley, where he serves as Town Attorney,” according to records from the ethics commission.

The commission dismissed the complaint.

“In fact, holding two positions in separate municipalities does not violate the County Ethics Code,” according to the final dismissal order.

Veliz could not be reached for comment.

Public records show that Pizzi’s multiple jobs — he also represents clients as a private attorney — often raised questions about potential ethical or voting conflicts. He was investigated at least twice over issues arising from his public and private work. Both times, the complaints were dismissed.

Records also show that he requested ethics opinions from the county on a range of issues, including whether he should vote on certain issues in Miami Lakes, and whether council members in Medley had potential conflicts, at least 11 times.

It may not even be a conflict to hold two positions in the same city, according to the ethics commission.

Pizzi in January 2012 asked whether he could serve as attorney in Medley, and private attorney for the Medley Chamber of Commerce.

“No apparent employment conflicts are likely to occur in this arrangement as long as the Chamber has no business before the Town,” according to the ethics commission’s response.

In its opinion, the commission cited another case in Miami Beach, where Commissioner Jerry Libbin also serves as executive director of that city’s chamber of commerce.

Libbin did not return a request for comment.

In South Florida, most elected officials have to hold day jobs in order to earn a living. Whether or not a conflict exists depends on the details of each case, said Ryan Padgett, assistant general counsel for the Florida League of Cities.

“If it looks unreasonable, then you shouldn’t do it. It sort of has to pass the smell test,” he said.

A new state ethics bill that passed this year provides some guidance on the issue.

The bill prohibits elected officials from accepting public positions that are “being offered by the employer for the purpose of gaining influence or other advantage based on the public officer’s office or candidacy.”

But, as long as the position wasn’t created specifically for a candidate, it’s advertised and the public official meets all the qualifications for the position, he or she can take the job, according to the bill.

Pizzi was hired in Medley in January 2011 on an interim basis after their previous attorney abruptly resigned. Pizzi pitched his services at a council meeting, and he was first hired almost unanimously.

Current Mayor Robert Martell said he was the only one to vote against it.

“We should have the opportunity to look at other candidates,” Martell said at the time.

Follow @Cveiga on Twitter.

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