Except for a stint as manager of tiny North Bay Village, lobbyist and consultant Jorge Forte stayed pretty much under the public radar.
But that didnt stop him from handily riding the coattails of rising politico and Sweetwater Mayor Manny Maroño, Fortes longtime friend and business partner. Forte leveraged the relationship to push through city legislation, get government contracts and haul in tens of thousands of dollars in bribes from undercover FBI agents, prosecutors alleged last week.
Maroño was arrested Aug. 6. A day later, Forte, his confidant and alleged bagman, was charged. Both are accused of conspiring to commit extortion for allegedly accepting $60,000 in kickbacks for championing bogus grant applications in Sweetwater, and trying to lure other Florida cities into the scheme.
The complaint filed by the FBI portrays Forte, 41, as the Maroños front man the buffer who protected the mayor, spoke for the mayor and collected the mayors money starting in the fall of 2011.
In March 2012, during a secretly recorded meeting at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, the lobbyist warned undercover FBI agents posing as crooked Chicago businessmen that they had to go through him to get to Maroño.
In Miami-Dade County, you want something from him, you dont call him, you call me . . . Its just the way it works, Forte said. Maroño later referred to his sidekick as his right-hand man.
In April 2012, when an agent asked Forte how payments should be handled, Forte agreed to accept $20,000 cash broken into two installments of $6,600 and one of $6,800. Forte said he was familiar with U.S. tax law an apparent reference to keeping the payments under $10,000 to avoid bank-reporting requirements. He called the cash a little play money.
The same month, according to the charges, Forte even traveled to Chicago to collect a final kickback payment for him and Maroño, prosecutors said.
Business acquaintances and public records paint Forte as a go-getter who wasnt shy about using his 25-year friendship with Maroño to boost his career and his bank account. It helped him land chief-of-staff positions with elected leaders and a job as a city manager. But with few exceptions, he is unknown outside of West Miami-Dade.
Im confident I never met him, prominent lobbyist Eston Dusty Melton said. If theres a farm league in the lobbyist industry hereabouts, I guess he was playing Triple-A ball.
Forte was registered to lobby in Tallahassee but only before the executive branch, not the legislative branch, where most lobbyists work. He first registered in 2011, after the election of Gov. Rick Scott. Maroño was an early Scott supporter.
Forte made most of his business connections through the Florida League of Cities, which Maroño led as president this past year until his arrest. Both Forte and Maroño tried, but failed, to get administrators and elected officials from other cities to go along with the feds phony grant scheme.
League of Cities members from Longwood, just north of Orlando, to Pembroke Pines to Monroe County say Forte tried to sell them on the grant scheme, sending them copies of the same resolution passed in Sweetwater which he wrote that OKd the grant proposal.