It’s been a busy few weeks on the malfeasance beat. Malfeasance being a fancy legal term for people in positions of public trust who lie, cheat and steal. Line their pockets with public money. Abuse their official positions. Sell their influence. Screw the people who elected them.
Three Miami-Dade mayors and two lobbyists have been accused of doing all that and more. It’s hard to get worked up about a couple of ethically challenged lobbyists, although one of them, Richard Candia, was indispensable to the FBI’s efforts to snag Michael Pizzi, the now-suspended Miami Lakes mayor. “I have done nothing wrong,” says Pizzi. Over and over again.
An honest lobbyist, Michael Kesti, tipped the FBI that some local lobbyists were doing bad things, and they evidently caught Candia. Then they flipped him to get to Pizzi. Candia wore a wire for the undercover FBI agents who were entirely up front about running a grant money scam.
After Pizzi manipulated resolutions to apply for those grants, Candia recorded an especially incriminating conversation with Pizzi in the closet of his law office at Medley City Hall, where Pizzi was the city attorney. “You did good,” Pizzi told Candia after taking a $3,000 cash kickback, according to the FBI criminal complaint.
I recently interviewed Pizzi, a fast-talking criminal defense attorney who sounds like he never left Brooklyn. “I have never accepted a kickback or any money inappropriately,” Pizzi said when I asked about the $3,000 pay off.
And what about being caught doing so on tape? “Lobbyists who had been repeatedly vouched for said it was a legitimate program,” Pizzi said. He promises to say more when he has his day in court. In fact, Pizzi holds out a loony hope that his case will never go to trial because his attorneys will persuade U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer to forgo a grand jury indictment and drop the charges altogether. Fat chance.
Manny Maroño of Sweetwater has had the good sense to say nothing until his trial starts. Maroño and his bag man, lobbyist Jorge Forte, allegedly took some $60,000 in bribe money from the boys at Sunshine Universal — don’t you love that name? — the FBI’s front company. Maroño’s only claim to fame until now was being the first and, for a long time, the only Cuban American elected official to endorse then-candidate Rick Scott for governor. Scott returned the favor by attending Maroño’s last swearing-in and inviting him to attend his events whenever the governor visited South Florida. Scott never failed to introduce him as his “good friend” and “great mayor.” Right up until the day he suspended him from office.
Then there’s Homestead Mayor Steve Bateman, who takes the prize for least subtle extortionist. He wangled a $125-per-hour consulting gig with Community Health of South Florida when the nonprofit, which provides health services to the poor, wanted to open three facilities in Homestead. Bateman openly lobbied for the CHI projects wearing his mayor’s hat, but told no one he was also being paid by CHI. Can you say “conflict of interest”?
Apparently neither Bateman nor CHI could. Bateman was also gigging them, too. For a one-hour meeting with Mayor Carlos Gimenez, Bateman billed CHI for eight hours — $1,000. Guess that was portal-to-portal, plus drinks, lunch and milage.
I asked State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle the other day if CHI and its longtime boss, Col. Brodes Hartley, didn’t bear some responsibility for furthering Bateman’s scam. “We’re just looking at the politician,” she said. Too bad ’cause it takes two to square dance, as they might say in Homestead, and for all the good CHI has done over the years, it was Bateman’s dance partner in wrongdoing.
South Florida didn’t invent public corruption, but we have perfected it. Mayors, county and city commissioners, school board members have all fallen like dominoes here. They shared a few common traits: A belief they were invulnerable and entitled to use their positions to enrich themselves. They were also arrogant and thought they were above the law. Beyond it, too.
The latest corrupt politicians have something else in common: They all hail from smaller municipalities where media scrutiny of government is almost nonexistent. In the salad days of this and other newspapers, young reporters eagerly covered such cities. Nowadays, small governments rarely get attention until the wheels come off.
In my experience the vast majority of people here in positions of public trust are honest. But the relative few who aren’t taint everyone’s reputation. With every arrest, cynicism grows about all politicians, which then discourages people of principle and good character from seeking public office. It’s a cycle that allows miscreants to thrive. We must somehow break that cycle.