Sweetwater Mayor Manny Maroño picked up the phone on May 10, 2012. It was a federal auditor asking about a $200,000 grant that was supposed to pay for an economic development study in his small West Miami-Dade city.
There was no study, and Maroño knew that. But he lied to the auditor, planning to share $40,000 of the money in a sweetheart deal for him and his closest lobbyist pal, according to federal prosecutors.
What Maroño didn’t know was the auditor was an undercover FBI agent. So were the purported Chicago businessmen who had offered to draft the bogus feasibility study in exchange for a cut. Maroño called them four days later.
“Yo,” he said about his exchange with the auditor. “It went fantastic.”
Fifteen months later, Maroño and the lobbyist, Jorge Forte, would be arrested, charged with conspiracy to commit extortion for allegedly accepting $60,000 in kickbacks for pushing phony grant applications in Sweetwater and` trying to get other cities to join in.
Maroño’s downfall came at the peak of a political career that has spanned nearly two decades. He controlled a fiercely loyal city. He basked in statewide exposure as president of the Florida League of Cities. He had the ear of Gov. Rick Scott.
The governor suspended Maroño, 41, from office on Aug. 6, hours after he was escorted from City Hall.
A criminal complaint alleges that Maroño and Forte received $40,000 from the purported economic development grant and an additional $20,000 for introducing the agents to other politicians.
Also arrested on similar corruption charges were Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi and lobbyist Richard Candia, who had served as one of Sweetwater’s Tallahassee lobbyists.
Candia, set up by lobbyist Michael Kesti, an FBI informant, introduced the agents to Maroño as a likely supporter of the grant scheme.
“[Maroño]’s not gonna be shy, shy to ask for s--t,” Candia told an agent in September 2011. “I mean, there will be no end.”
Maroño declined to comment. His lawyers, Kendall Coffey and Armando Rosquete, said in a statement that Maroño and his family “are very appreciative of the support he has received from friends and so many in the community.”
“He has great faith in our country’s legal system and has no further comment at this time,” they said.
Manuel Lázaro Maroño, born in Miami on November 16, 1971, has long boasted that he has been a lifetime resident of Sweetwater, a hamlet of nearly 21,000 residents incorporated in 1941 by Russian circus midgets looking for a place to retire. Over time, the city became a Hispanic stronghold.
Maroño broke into politics at 23, winning a seat on the city council (since renamed commission) in 1995. He had attended Miami Dade College and owned an export and towing company with his father, Manny Sr.
Married in 1994 to Jennifer Muñoz, the couple had two sons before divorcing in 2002, court records show. They have since gotten back together.
The fresh-faced Maroño moved up quickly under the wing of Councilman Jose “Pepe” Diaz.
Diaz became mayor in 1999, elected with a slate of allies who churned out unanimous votes with little dissent. Maroño became the board’s president. When Diaz jumped to the county commission in 2002, Maroño took over as mayor.