In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Politics are irrelevant in mayoral scandals

Three mayors busted. All three accused of illegally exploiting their offices for personal gain. Let me attach an irrelevant little addendum to the ignominy that has sullied three Miami-Dade city halls: two Republicans and a Democrat.

These might be termed political scandals, except there was nothing much about politics in the banal schemes described by undercover FBI agents who arrested the mayors of Sweetwater and Miami Lakes, and by investigators from the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s office and the county’s Commission on Ethics and Public Trust who nabbed the mayor in Homestead.

If the charges hold up, these were non-partisan exercises in low-down money-grubbing and influence peddling. And the arrests illustrate, once again, that while so many Americans are fixated on the great philosophical divide, left versus right, tea party versus MoveOn, clamoring fringe versus clamoring fringe, actual government has been usurped by either a plutocracy or a kleptocracy. Either way, it’s so much about money, and so little to do with philosophy.

Homestead Mayor Steve Bateman went down Wednesday, accused of using his office to grease construction permits at both city and county hall for Community Health of South Florida Inc. The mayor failed to disclose, however, that he was getting paid $125 an hour by the non-profit. Bateman happens to be a Democrat.

Manuel Maroño is a Republican, a former ally of Rick Scott, the governor who suspended the Sweetwater mayor from office on Aug. 6. But his crucial alliances, as usual in South Florida government, were with influence peddlers. The feds claim that they snagged Maroño and lobbyist Jorge Forte in a sting operation. The two are accused of taking some $60,000 in kickbacks to peddle a worthless scheme to obtain federal grants for Sweetwater and other towns.

The FBI used another Miami-Dade lobbyist, Richard Candia, to lure them into the conspiracy. (Candia also faces federal charges.) Candia, talking to a pair of undercover FBI agents posing as sleazy Chicago businessmen, told them in 2011, “[Maroño]’s not gonna be shy, shy to ask for s---. I mean, there will be no end.”

Candia also introduced Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi to the two undercover agents. According to federal prosecutors, the agents made it clear to Pizzi what they were about. “I just want to be clear with you, mayor, so that there are not any hard feelings down the road,” one of the agents told Pizzi. “But, you understand a lot of this s--- is just bogus. What we are doing here is just grabbing money.”

The agent perfectly described governance hereabouts (not to mention Tallahassee and Washington). While we have been transfixed and divided by wild-eyed TV talking heads debating fringe political philosophies, the actual politicians have been just grabbing money.

Pizzi was a Republican, who despaired after the 2012 presidential race. “The Republican Party performance in the last election was disgraceful and we need new leadership in this State of Florida. The Obama supporters were all over and dominating,” Pizzi wrote to his fellow party members. “The Republican Party did nothing and was consumed with personal agendas and selfish acts.”

That was six months ago. The FBI was already exploring the selfish acts of one particular Republican.

The FBI allegations against Pizzi don’t amount to all that much money in the way of kickbacks — just $6,750. Of course, the implications are that the sleazy lobbyist had good reason to lead the undercover agents to the mayor’s office in Miami Lakes.

But Pizzi’s fall seemed more disappointing than those of his fellow busted mayors. He had come up as a community activist in Miami Lakes, organizing against developers, fighting for park land, challenging politicians who would breach the urban development boundary. In city politics, he fought for free services for the town’s elderly. He seemed an unconventional Republican with a moderate agenda.

But when Pizzi complained about personal agendas and selfish acts, it now seems he wasn’t really talking about party politics at all, but his own demons.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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