It was the antithesis of politics.
The mayor and the lobbyist did not prevaricate. They did not hedge. They did not dodge. They did not blame others for their transgressions. They did not claim to have been misled. They did not blame alcohol or drugs. They made no announcement about checking into rehab. They did not pretend to have sinned in pursuit of some greater good. They did not spin. They neither hemmed nor hawed.
Manuel Maroño, the disgraced former mayor of Sweetwater, and his onetime bagman Jorge Forte found themselves in a forum Wednesday that demanded their absolute clarity. Their plea deals depended on it.
Standing in a courtroom and owning up to criminal behavior would make a lousy day for anyone. But for a politician like Maroño and for a lobbyist like Forte, it must have been an especially frustrating exercise, stifling equivocal explanations that come so naturally to their ilk.
Did you do this? Did you do this willfully? Did you do this knowingly? Did you know what you were doing?
Not often do politicians, knowing that reporters are scribbling down their words, provide such succinct answers. Yes your honor. Yes your honor. Yes your honor. Yes your honor.
Maroño and Forte were well coached by their attorneys, who knew that the famously tough U.S. District Judge William Zloch would not accept some ambiguous admission of guilt, would not brook a corrupt politician or a scheming lobbyist pretending to be put-upon victims of circumstance, forced into a guilty plea. Get cute with Judge Zloch and a deal for a 2½ year prison term could double.
Did you read the plea agreement? Was it factual? “Yes your honor. Yes your honor.” And the agreement and the accompanying proffer make it clear that Maroño and Forte happily pocketed $60,000 in kickbacks to entangle Sweetwater City Hall in a bogus scheme involving federal grant applications.
The two were drawn into the conspiracy by yet another co-defendant, Richard Candia, who had volunteered Mayor Maroño’s name to FBI undercover agents as a local pol amendable to kickback conspiracies. (Candia also implicated Miami Lakes’ Mayor Mike Pizzi — since suspended — who entered a not-guilty plea and has repeatedly told reporters he expects to be cleared.)
Later, when an undercover FBI agent, posing as a crooked businessman from Chicago, asked the Sweetwater mayor, “Is there anything that we could do for you as a result of what you did for us?” Maroño hardly responded like an innocent. He cautioned the agent to work through his bagman Forte: “I will not have that conversation.” Maroño excused himself from the table, while Forte, whom the mayor described as his “right-hand man,” negotiated a payment schedule.
When the feds busted Forte on Aug. 6, Maroño’s lifelong friend quickly capitulated. He admitted that he and the mayor knew damn well they were getting illegal kickbacks. That same day, Forte agreed to wear a wire while he delivered a $5,000 bribe to his good buddy. The mayor took the money and uttered incriminating statements. He admitted in court Wednesday that it was all true, quashing any doubts his constituents in Sweetwater might have had about whether Mayor Manny was really guilty.
He stood between his two lawyers and addressed Judge Zloch. “I did this for personal benefit,” Maroño said. And not much else. For once, a South Florida politician was a study in brevity.