Federal courts

Indictments delayed for former mayors targeted in Miami-Dade bribery probes

 

jweaver@MiamiHerald.com

The suspended mayors of Miami Lakes and Sweetwater, along with a pair of lobbyists, obtained delays of their indictments on federal kickback charges Tuesday.

Former Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi, one-time Sweetwater Mayor Manuel Maroño, and lobbyists Richard Candia and Jorge Forte will now have their arraignments on Sept. 20.

Magistrate Judge Barry Garber granted their motions to waive indictments and speedy trials.

The preliminary strategy suggests that some of the defendants might be interested in negotiating plea deals rather than face indictments and jury trials. Others might be trying to persuade the U.S. attorney’s office to dismiss their cases before presenting evidence to a grand jury.

Outside the Miami federal courthouse, Pizzi was the only defendant to speak to reporters, saying he was the “victim” of an FBI sting operation and that he only acted in the “best interest” of his city.

“I was a good mayor and a good attorney and I have God on my side,” said Pizzi, who until last week had worked as the town attorney in Medley as well. “And, I expect to be fully exonerated.... I did absolutely nothing wrong”

All four men were arrested earlier this month on complaints charging they conspired to extort thousands of dollars in exchange for politically supporting “bogus” federal grant applications that were only meant to line their pockets. FBI undercover agents posing as crooked Chicago businessmen roped them in with promises of easy federal money if they pushed for the community grant applications.

Pizzi and Candia were charged in one case. Candia was also charged with Maroño and Forte in another case.

The two corruption cases, which started with a confidential tip to the FBI in 2011, were remarkable even by South Florida’s standards, because the crackdown snared two municipal mayors and two lobbyists on the same day. Attempts to take down other public officials in the same sting were unsuccessful because they wouldn’t bite.

On Aug. 6, FBI agents arrested Pizzi, 51, and Maroño, 41, at their town hall offices on charges of conspiring to commit extortion in their roles as elected officials between 2011 and 2013. Pizzi also was charged with the same misconduct linked to a purported federal grant for Medley, where he was the town attorney.

Pizzi’s bond was set at $100,000; Maroño’s, at $250,000. Both were ordered by Magistrate Judge Andrea Simonton not to contact dozens of other politicians, officials or lobbyists who are potential witnesses.

Also arrested were lobbyists Forte, 41, the former chief of staff for Maroño in Sweetwater, and Candia, 49, a former lobbyist with the Becker & Poliakoff law firm who began cooperating with the FBI after agents approached him in late June. Each lobbyist received a $100,000 bond.

Maroño is accused of working with both lobbyists to break the law. Maroño and Forte allegedly received $40,000 for their parts in the federal grant scheme in Sweetwater and an additional $20,000 for making introductions to other public officials on behalf of undercover FBI agents posing as the Chicago businessmen.

Candia allegedly received at least $5,000 in kickbacks for the Sweetwater deal. He did not get any money relating to the Medley or Miami Lakes grant deals.

The undercover agents used Candia to approach Maroño and Pizzi, pitching them on the idea of cashing in by using the fictitious Chicago grant business, Sunshine Universal, to tap into an actual government agency, AmeriCorps, which issues community grants for economic development.S

Pizzi allegedly received $6,750 in cash and campaign checks for pushing the purported grant deals in Miami Lakes and Medley.S

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