Suspended Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi says he “accepted no money inappropriately or illegally from anyone,” suggesting any funds he received during an FBI undercover sting were above board. Yet, if he took $6,000 in cash — whether for kickbacks as alleged, or for any other reason — he did not publicly disclose a penny of it on campaign finance reports.
Pizzi’s mayoral campaign report shows he accepted three checks totaling $750 from two Chicago consultants and a businessman named “Steve Phillips.” In reality, all three donors were fictitious creations of a two-year FBI undercover operation. But none of the $6,000 in cash that a criminal complaint accuses Pizzi of pocketing was reported by his mayoral campaign or a Miami Lakes political action committee he supported.
Last week, Pizzi, 51, was arrested on charges of accepting $6,750 in kickbacks as a quid pro quo for using his official positions as Miami Lakes mayor and Medley town attorney to promote federal grant applications meant only to enrich him and others.
He was charged with conspiring to commit extortion with Miami-Dade lobbyist Richard Candia. Candia was also charged with the same offense in a separate complaint accusing Sweetwater Mayor Manuel Marono and lobbyist Jorge Forte of receiving kickbacks. Both mayors have been suspended from office by the governor.
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On his mayoral campaign report for January through March 2012, Pizzi listed a $250 check from “Steve Phillips.’’ But the check did not show an address for Phillips. It would have been difficult to find an address, as Phillips is not a real person. Campaign reports require addresses for each donor.
So Pizzi’s campaign wrote into the report, in different ink from the rest, the address of a woman named Shirley Phillips in Boca Raton — a woman with no apparent connection to the donation. Phillips could not be reached for comment.
Pizzi could not explain the discrepancy. In an interview Monday, he said that he received hundreds of contributions to his 2012 campaign, gathered the checks and passed them along to campaign staff.
“My campaign staff would be responsible for preparing reports,” he said. “There is nothing nefarious about it.”
The three checks at issue — drawn on FBI undercover bank accounts — were made payable to “Reelect Mayor Michael Pizzi.” The checks were delivered by South Miami-Dade lobbyist Michael Kesti, an FBI confidential informant. Pizzi said he had no reason to believe that Kesti — who introduced him to the undercover agents — was illegitimate.
“There’s no reason to think there’s anything wrong with that. He wasn’t a convicted felon,” Pizzi said.
The other two checks came from “Dean Stevens” and “John Miles,” listed on the report as Chicago “consultants.” The report had addresses for both donors.
“In a report where I raised $52,000 in contributions of $250 or less, in individual checks, those three checks were completely meaningless, insignificant and not needed,” Pizzi said. “I wasn’t hungry for money. Why would I even think of doing anything wrong with a couple of hundred dollars?’’
Regarding the alleged cash kickbacks, Pizzi declined to directly address the three instances in which FBI agents claim he accepted $1,000, $2,000 and $3,000 to push through the grant resolutions in the towns of Medley and Miami Lakes.
“I have been instructed by my attorneys not to go into any further detail,” Pizzi said.
Pizzi is accused of accepting $1,000 cash from Candia in his Miami Lakes Town Hall office, $2,000 cash from the undercover agents, and $3,000 cash from Candia at the mayor’s office at Medley Town Hall, where he worked as the town attorney. All three alleged payments were made after he had won re-election as mayor in May 2012.
Cash campaign donations are prohibited by law.
In only instance did Pizzi link the donation to a political purpose. According to the criminal complaint, Pizzi instructed lobbyist Candia and the undercover agents posing as sleazy Chicago businessmen to make the $3,000 donation to Miami Lakes Voters for Good Government, the PAC he supported.
On June 27, Candia, who at that point was cooperating with the FBI, asked Pizzi in a recorded conversation: “Do you still need that money for the PAC?’’
Pizzi responded that there was a “problem” because he had already “laid out the money himself” for the committee and wasn’t sure whether “the PAC can get money and then reimburse me.”
On July 1, Candia showed up at Pizzi’s Medley Town Hall office. The two men went into a closet, according to the FBI complaint, and Candia handed Pizzi an envelope with $3,000 cash.
Records for Miami Lakes Voters for Good Government show no deposits or contributions from Pizzi to the PAC during the past year.
The report shows the committee paid $3,000 to Donald Alvarado for canvassing on June 7, 2013, almost three weeks before Pizzi allegedly requested the money. Alvarado could not be located for comment.
Miami Lakes Voters for Good Government, the PAC, was created in March 2012 to support local candidates, including Pizzi, and to collect money for a Miami Lakes charter change that would have made all council seats citywide, eliminating single districts. The measure prevailed in July. Although Pizzi isn’t listed on the filing documents, he campaigned in support of citywide seats and searched for contributions to the PAC.
Miami-Dade Elections records list McHenry Hamilton, a South Florida certified public accountant, as the PAC’s treasurer. Hamilton declined Monday to answer questions about the PAC, saying: “I’m listed as a witness [in Pizzi’s case] and can’t discuss anything.”