Federal court

Miami Lakes’ muzzled mayor misses ‘my people’ as trial is set to begin

 

Suspended Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi, whose bribery trial starts Tuesday, has a history of attention-grabbing crusades.

jweaver@MiamiHerald.com

Michael Pizzi, the suspended mayor of Miami Lakes, has been in a funk since his arrest last summer on public-corruption charges — and not just because he faces the grim prospect of going to prison.

He can’t go to Town Hall, can’t throw his roast-pig street barbecues for senior citizens, can’t cook Mayor Pizzi’s pasta for schoolchildren and can’t hand out toys to low-income kids at Christmas.

He can't even issue his regular email blasts to political supporters, a command issued by a federal judge after Pizzi violated his bond and almost got sent to jail for contacting a government witness.

Stuck alone most days in his townhouse off the Palmetto Expressway, the perpetually hyper Pizzi says he feels like he has lost the ability to breathe.

“I miss my people,” Pizzi, 51, told the Miami Herald. “It’s killing me every day.”

Whether the two-term mayor gets his public life back will be up to Miami-Dade jurors. Pizzi’s bribery trial starts Tuesday in federal court.

He is charged with conspiracy and extortion offenses for allegedly accepting $6,750 in mostly cash bribes during an FBI sting operation. In exchange, he supported bogus federal grant proposals purportedly to spur job growth that prosecutors say were only meant to line his pockets.

Pizzi is accused of collaborating with onetime Miami-Dade lobbyist Richard Candia, who flipped for the feds, has pleaded guilty and will testify against him. Two others busted last August on similar charges — former Sweetwater Mayor Manuel Maroño and lobbyist Jorge Forte — have also pleaded guilty and been imprisoned.

Of the four defendants, Pizzi has the most defensible case, and has been the most vocal about his innocence. But for Pizzi to be acquitted, he still must justify to jurors why he accepted alleged cash bribes: $1,000 from Candia at a Starbuck’s cafe; $2,000 from a couple of FBI undercover agents at a billiard hall; and $3,000 from Candia in an office closet at Medley Town Hall, where Pizzi worked as the town attorney.

Pizzi also accepted alleged bribes in the form of $750 check donations for his 2012 reelection campaign from a Miami-Dade lobbyist, Michael Kesti. Kesti, who is not expected to testify at Pizzi’s trial, was paid $114,000 by the FBI, including use of a rented Lexus, to play the role of a government informant in the 2011-13 sting operation.

The biggest question hanging over his trial is whether the voluble Pizzi will take the witness stand in his own defense. “That will be up to my lawyers,” he said.

Pizzi, a Brooklyn native who moved to South Florida in 1988, sees himself as the character Carmine Polito in the Oscar-nominated movie, American Hustle — an over-the-top tale of the FBI’s undercover takedown of a fictional blue-collar New Jersey mayor who lived for his constituents.

“Everyone who has seen American Hustle says that Carmine Polito is Michael Pizzi,” he said. But he leaves out the part that Polito’s character was modeled after an actual 1970s-era Jersey mayor convicted in the FBI’s so-called Abscam sting.

Pizzi stumbled into politics after he got a law degree at the University of Miami. Over the years, he earned a reputation as an outspoken community activist who stood up to powerful rock miners, real estate developers and Miami-Dade County commissioners.

“He’s one of the most unusual politicians in Miami-Dade County,” said Dario Moreno, a Florida International University political science professor and pollster. “He’s a populist, he’s a polarizing figure and he’s one of the few Anglos to play in the [Hispanic] political world of Hialeah, which in my mind is shocking.”

His first public foray was against the rock-mining industry, which outraged Miami Lakes homeowners with its blasting in northwest Miami-Dade. Pizzi says he got nudged into the fight by his wife after her mother complained that she almost fell out of bed because of earth-shaking blasts.

Pizzi sued major mining businesses while leading protests in which Miami Lakes residents would lay down in front of trucks hauling rocks. The legal confrontation led to limits on blasting and unprecedented compensation for homeowners’ damages.

“I made a lot of enemies in the industry and at County Hall,” he said. “They were not happy that I was rubbing this issue in their face.”

Pizzi’s pugnacious style worked again when he sparred with a developer who wanted to build an apartment complex on American Indian burial grounds in Miami Lakes.

It also paid off when busloads of protesters descended on County Hall to stop then-Commissioner Miriam Alonso’s plan for a landfill in Miami Lakes.

Pizzi initiated a petition to recall Alonso from office, prompting her to accuse him of terrorizing her — but she ultimately backed down and voted with other commissioners to kill the landfill proposal.

Pizzi, who viewed himself as an “anti-establishment” politician, was first elected to the Miami Lakes Town Council in 2000, and as mayor eight years later. But the more powerful he became as a small-town mayor, the more he butted heads with Miami-Dade politicians on big issues, such as the Marlins stadium boondoggle.

Deploying the threat of a recall would become Pizzi’s weapon of choice against future political enemies: County Commissioner Natasha Seijas, whose district included Miami Lakes, and county Mayor Carlos Alvarez.

He led the first crusade to recall Seijas, which failed, but later prevailed in 2011.

That same year, he also was on the front lines to recall Alvarez, although auto magnate Norman Braman stole the limelight when the county mayor was ousted from office.

Miami Lakes Town Manager Alex Rey, a potential government witness who was the target of Pizzi’s last email blast in April, told the Herald in 2011 that the reform-minded mayor thrived on controversy and confrontation.

“Michael has always been a Don Quixote, fighting windmills,” Rey said back then.

Moreno, the FIU political pollster, said Pizzi cultivated a knack for “self-promotion.”

“He learned certain skills about how to get people behind him and to get the press’ attention,” Moreno said. “He liked seeing his name in print, and he liked seeing himself become a force, especially in Hispanic strongholds. He got hooked on people listening to him.”

But as Pizzi’s profile grew, he drew his own chorus of critics in Miami Lakes. He wore many hats: Miami Lakes mayor, lobbyist for a waste company, town attorney in nearby Medley and attorney for criminal defendants.

Still, Pizzi overwhelmingly won reelection as mayor in 2012, raising a war chest of donations, including sizable contributions from a political campaign organization chaired by Candia, who was also a Miami Lakes lobbyist.

Pizzi still crows about his landslide victory and that Miami Lakes, once mostly cow pastures owned by the prominent Graham family, was recognized as an All-American City finalist.

At the June 2013 competition in Denver — just weeks before he would be arrested by FBI agents — Pizzi boasted that Miami Lakes was “like a Norman Rockwell painting.”

“I live for being there for my neighbors. They are my family,” Pizzi, who is divorced and has two grown children, told the Herald. “I never cared about the trappings of office.”

But some political foes, including former Miami Lakes Town Council member Richard Pulido, said Pizzi and the town might be better off if he focused less on being in “middle of controversy” to promote himself.

Back in 2010, Pizzi was recorded by a former Hialeah cop wearing a wire for Miami-Dade detectives that he wanted to get rid of Pulido, his then-nemesis on the Town Council, by paying someone to plant cocaine on him or “rig the f------ brakes on his car.”

Pizzi later told the Herald that he intended no harm to Pulido. Eventually, police suspended the investigation without charging anyone with anything, officially closing it in 2013.

Pulido, who lost his council seat to a Pizzi-backed candidate, said he harbors no grudge toward the suspended mayor, but questioned his character as a politician.

Said Pulido: “If he channeled his energies for the greater good of the community rather than feeding his personal ego, he would have the potential to be an extraordinary public servant.”

Read more Miami-Dade stories from the Miami Herald

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