After 10 years as mayor of Sweetwater, Manuel “Manny” Maroño had accumulated $316,000 in pension benefits, through a generous retirement package, although he has not contributed one cent.
Maroño tried to cash in on those benefits two weeks before he pleaded guilty to federal public corruption charges in November.
He sent an envoy to the Elected Officials Pension Board with a proposal: to roll all of the money in his pension account into a private Individual Retirement Account (IRA).
His proposal was rejected.
“So many things have happened lately that I just wanted to be completely sure that every decision we are making is totally legal,” said Commissioner José Bergouignan, who heads the pension board. “We have never gone through a similar situation before.”
City Attorney Ralph Ventura initially considered handing over the money to Maroño, even if the action could later lead to a lawsuit against the former mayor to recover it — since municipal regulations did not specifically address the issue of what to do with benefits when elected officials are suspended.
But a consultation with the Florida Attorney General’s Office cleared up any ambiguities.
“Essentially, under state law, a mayor who has been suspended cannot access the benefits of his position,” said Ventura, who suggested requesting an opinion from the attorney general. “I personally would have never disbursed those funds without first getting a state opinion on the matter.”
Armando Rosquete, a lawyer who represents Maroño on the public corruption case, told El Nuevo Herald he could not comment on his client’s request for the pension benefits. It is not clear if the former mayor plans to appeal the city’s denial.
It is also not clear why Maroño sent a personal friend, Marcelo Rodriguez, and not a lawyer, to represent him before the pension board. But when he was arrested, federal authorities issued a list of people that Maroño could not contact because they were potential witnesses.
The list included the three members of the pension board — Bergouignan, Commissioner Orlando Lopez and current Mayor José M. Díaz.
The money in the pension fund for Sweetwater elected officials comes from a monthly contribution by the city, plus any gains in the stock market.
Gov. Rick Scott suspended Maroño on Aug. 6, the same days federal agents arrested him on charges of accepting bribes from a fictitious company in an FBI sting. He made his petition to the pension board on Oct. 30 and pleaded guilty on Nov. 13. Maroño currently is awaiting sentencing on a corruption charge.
Under state laws, public officials can lose their pensions permanently if they are found guilty of using their jobs to commit a crime.
One of the most notorious cases of pension denial for a public official involved former Miami police chief Donald Warshaw. The Firemen and Policemen’s Retirement Fund determined in 2003 that Warshaw did not have a right to his money because he was convicted of diverting $70,000 from a police charity for his own benefit. Such cases are rare, however.
Federal authorities also are investigating Maroño for his links to a towing company that held a monopoly in the city since 2009. FBI agents are looking into whether municipal officials and police received bribes to steer business to the company, where state records show he was once a part owner.
Knowledgeable sources have said that Maroño was a “secret partner” in Southland The Towing Company. No one has been charged in that case.
El Nuevo Herald and CBS4 have been reporting on the questionable connections since Maroño’s arrest in August.
Several persons who worked in Maroño’s towing companies are officials or employees of Sweetwater, including Commissioner Jose Guerra, Gilberto “Gil” Chez, the administrator of the vehicular fleet and Maroño’s mother, Commissioner Isolina Maroño. Ventura himself was a lawyer for Southland, but dropped the client about a month ago.
“I had to drop Southland as my client because of the excess of media attention, which was completely unwarranted and unfair,” Ventura said Tuesday.
Maroño’s finances have taken a hit since his arrest in August. His salary as mayor amounted to $95,000 per year. And several other municipalities that used Southland have rescinded their contracts with the company.
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