In March, Sweetwater Mayor Manuel Maroño and lobbyist Jorge Forte dined at a local restaurant with a couple of supposed Chicago businessmen. At the end, the dessert was green — as in $10,000 in cash hidden inside a notebook on the table that Forte accepted and split with the mayor, federal authorities say.
In July, Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi met with lobbyist Richard Candia in an office closet at Medley Town Hall, where Pizzi worked as the town’s attorney. The reason for the clandestine encounter? For Pizzi to collect an envelope stuffed with a $3,000 cash kickback, according to authorities.
What the mayors and Forte didn’t know was that they were targets of an FBI undercover operation — and the money exchanging hands was soon to be used as proof of political corruption in Sweetwater, Miami Lakes and Medley.
Miami federal prosecutors said the two mayors and two lobbyists accepted thousands of dollars in bribes in exchange for championing purported federal grant applications for their towns. But in reality, the men were in cahoots, intending to line their pockets with the grant money — not to bring dollars into municipal coffers, the feds said.
Many of their conversations were recorded by undercover agents and on phone taps.
The two corruption cases, which started with a confidential tip to the FBI two years ago, were remarkable even by South Florida’s standards, because the crackdown snared two municipal mayors and two lobbyists on the same day. Attempts to take down other public officials in the same sting were unsuccessful because they wouldn’t bite.
“Our democracy suffers when ... elected officials use their power and political influence for personal gain instead of for public good,” U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer told a packed press conference.
FBI agents Tuesday arrested Pizzi, 51, and Maroño, 41, at their Town Hall offices on charges of conspiring to commit extortion in their roles as elected officials between 2011 and 2013. Pizzi also was charged with the same misconduct linked to a purported federal grant for Medley, where he is the town attorney.
Pizzi and Maroño made their first appearances in Miami federal court Tuesday. Pizzi’s bond was set at $100,000, Maroño’s at $250,000. Both were ordered by Magistrate Judge Andrea Simonton not to contact dozens of other politicians, officials or lobbyists who are potential witnesses.
Pizzi’s lawyer, Amanda Maxwell, who is handling his defense along with attorney Ben Kuehne, said: “We know him as an attorney, a public official and a man of integrity, and today begins his fight for vindication.”
Marono’s attorney, Armando Rosquete, who works in former U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffey’s law firm, declined to comment.
Also arrested on the same charges were lobbyists Forte, 41, the former chief of staff for Maroño in Sweetwater, and Candia, 49, a lobbyist with the Becker & Poliakoff law firm who began cooperating with the FBI after agents approached him in late June. Both lobbyists are scheduled to surrender to authorities Wednesday.
Maroño is accused of working with both lobbyists to break the law. Maroño and Forte allegedly received $40,000 for their parts in the federal grant scheme and an additional $20,000 for making introductions to other public officials on behalf of undercover FBI agents posing as the Chicago businessmen.
The undercover agents used Candia to approach Maroño and Pizzi, pitching them on the idea of making easy money by using the fictitious Chicago grant business to tap into an actual government agency, AmeriCorps, part of the Department of Commerce.
Candia allegedly received at least $5,000 in kickbacks for the Sweetwater deal. He did not get any money relating to the Medley or Miami Lakes grant deals.
In one September 2011 recording, Candia, talking to an undercover agent posing as one of the Chicago businessmen, said Maroño would be amenable to the grant scheme. “[Marono]’s not gonna be shy, shy to ask for sh-t. I mean, there will be no end,’’ according to an FBI affidavit filed by prosecutor Jared Dwyer.
Pizzi is accused of breaking the law with Candia, who resigned from Becker & Poliakoff after the charges were filed Tuesday. Candia was a legislative aide for state Sen. Mario Diaz-Balart in the mid-1990s. Pizzi allegedly received $5,000 in cash kickbacks for the Miami Lakes grant deal and an additional $1,000 cash and $750 in campaign contributions for the Medley deal.
Both mayors sponsored resolutions to apply for the federal grants and wrote endorsement letters to the government for the money, authorities said. They also are accused of lying to FBI undercover agents who posed as auditors for AmeriCorps, saying the money had come in and was being properly spent, when neither was true.
Pizzi, who is serving his second term as mayor, has been in the public eye for years. He is an attorney and former federal probation officer who once worked for a high-profile criminal defense law firm in Miami and served as a Miami Lakes councilman before running successfully for town mayor in 2008. He was reelected last year.
Miami Lakes Vice Mayor Ceasar Mestre was in Pizzi’s office at City Hall around 10 a.m. Tuesday.
“I sat down in front of him and the door to his office opened abruptly,’’ Mestre said. There was no knock. It just opened and a bunch of federal agents walked in and announced who they were.”
Pizzi then turned to the agents and greeted them: “Nice to see you gentlemen, how can I help you?”
Mestre was asked to leave the room. He waited outside of Pizzi’s office for about five minutes, when the door opened. Pizzi was in handcuffs. On his way out the door, Pizzi asked Mestre to call certain people to let them know what was going on, including a local attorney and someone he described as a “significant woman” in his life.
Later in the day, federal agents interviewed Mestre.
“Having had the conversation I just had with federal agents .... I am very surprised,” Mestre said. “I told them that Michael doesn’t seem like the type of person who is driven by greed and money. He lives a plain lifestyle. He lives in a small townhouse and drove an old car until he got’’ a Kia.
In 2012, Pizzi easily defeated challenger Wayne Slaton, who had served as Miami Lakes’ first mayor after its incorporation in 2000. The Pizzi-Slaton mayoral showdown was particularly nasty for Miami Lakes, a normally below-the-radar community that was originally home to the Graham family’s dairy farm.
Slaton said Tuesday the town has changed.
“Miami Lakes was considered a jewel that was sort of set apart untouched, community-oriented. No rough stuff,” he said.
Residents had mixed reactions.
“I am speechless,” said Hope Reynolds, 59. “There is always this feeling that he would not be involved in anything that is wrong.”
Others, however, were not shocked. “There have always been suspicions, but I am assuming the FBI has more concrete evidence,’’ said Claudia Luces, 41.
In Sweetwater, people also expressed shock about the mayor’s arrest.
Maroño, a member of the city commission since 1995, was elected mayor in 2003.
Like Pizzi, Maroño also has a prominent profile for a small-town official. He is currently serving as president of the Florida League of Cities, with a membership of more than 400 cities, towns and villages in the state. In 2011, Maroño also played a role on Gov. Rick Scott’s transition team. That year, Maroño and Forte launched a public affairs and business development firm, 7 Strategies.
Forte and Maroño, who had known each other since high school, named the company in a reference to Scott’s seven-step plan to create 700,000 jobs in seven years. Both mayors have been suspended from office by the governor while they await trial. In a statement after the arrests, Scott said he was disappointed.
Meanwhile, Sweetwater Councilwoman Isolina Maroño, the mayor’s mother, maintained her son’s innocence.
“Whatever they are saying is not true ... He needs to clear this up,’’ she told reporters at City Hall.
Tears rolled down from under Councilman Manuel Duasso’s sunglasses as he left City Hall. A longtime councilman and city employee, he said he was heartbroken for the city and its people.
“I feel what happens to this city,’’ he said.
Miami Herald reporters Paradise Afshar, Marc Caputo, Theo Karantsalis, Benjamin Brasch and researcher Monika Leal contributed to this report.