Sweetwater Mayor Manny Maroño picked up the phone on May 10, 2012. It was a federal auditor asking about a $200,000 grant that was supposed to pay for an economic development study in his small West Miami-Dade city.
There was no study, and Maroño knew that. But he lied to the auditor, planning to share $40,000 of the money in a sweetheart deal for him and his closest lobbyist pal, according to federal prosecutors.
What Maroño didn’t know was the auditor was an undercover FBI agent. So were the purported Chicago businessmen who had offered to draft the bogus feasibility study in exchange for a cut. Maroño called them four days later.
“Yo,” he said about his exchange with the auditor. “It went fantastic.”
Fifteen months later, Maroño and the lobbyist, Jorge Forte, would be arrested, charged with conspiracy to commit extortion for allegedly accepting $60,000 in kickbacks for pushing phony grant applications in Sweetwater and` trying to get other cities to join in.
Maroño’s downfall came at the peak of a political career that has spanned nearly two decades. He controlled a fiercely loyal city. He basked in statewide exposure as president of the Florida League of Cities. He had the ear of Gov. Rick Scott.
The governor suspended Maroño, 41, from office on Aug. 6, hours after he was escorted from City Hall.
A criminal complaint alleges that Maroño and Forte received $40,000 from the purported economic development grant and an additional $20,000 for introducing the agents to other politicians.
Also arrested on similar corruption charges were Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi and lobbyist Richard Candia, who had served as one of Sweetwater’s Tallahassee lobbyists.
Candia, set up by lobbyist Michael Kesti, an FBI informant, introduced the agents to Maroño as a likely supporter of the grant scheme.
“[Maroño]’s not gonna be shy, shy to ask for s--t,” Candia told an agent in September 2011. “I mean, there will be no end.”
Maroño declined to comment. His lawyers, Kendall Coffey and Armando Rosquete, said in a statement that Maroño and his family “are very appreciative of the support he has received from friends and so many in the community.”
“He has great faith in our country’s legal system and has no further comment at this time,” they said.
Manuel Lázaro Maroño, born in Miami on November 16, 1971, has long boasted that he has been a lifetime resident of Sweetwater, a hamlet of nearly 21,000 residents incorporated in 1941 by Russian circus midgets looking for a place to retire. Over time, the city became a Hispanic stronghold.
Maroño broke into politics at 23, winning a seat on the city council (since renamed commission) in 1995. He had attended Miami Dade College and owned an export and towing company with his father, Manny Sr.
Married in 1994 to Jennifer Muñoz, the couple had two sons before divorcing in 2002, court records show. They have since gotten back together.
The fresh-faced Maroño moved up quickly under the wing of Councilman Jose “Pepe” Diaz.
Diaz became mayor in 1999, elected with a slate of allies who churned out unanimous votes with little dissent. Maroño became the board’s president. When Diaz jumped to the county commission in 2002, Maroño took over as mayor.
He campaigned on Election Day the following year by riding his Harley-Davidson motorcycle to the polls.
In insular Sweetwater, family ties run deep. Diaz’s brother-in-law, Jose Bergouignan, sits on the commission. So does Maroño’s mother, Isolina, who was elected earlier this year after being appointed last year following a commissioner’s death.
As a strong mayor who also serves as the city’s manager, Maroño did not have a vote on his mother’s appointment, and there is no prohibition under Florida’s Sunshine Laws against a strong mayor meeting one-on-one with a commissioner.
Maroño’s mother, who has repeatedly maintained her son’s innocence, is not his only relative at City Hall.
In 1996, Sweetwater hired Maroño’s uncle, Antero Espinosa. He makes $74,662 a year as the city’s maintenance director and drives a city-paid pick-up truck. Jennifer Muñoz-Maroño, Maroño’s wife, has worked for Sweetwater since 2001. She makes $75,000 a year as the city’s director of special projects. The city pays for her Chevrolet Tahoe SUV.
As mayor, Maroño made an annual salary of $95,000.
City officials have closed ranks since Maroño’s arrest. Commissioners won’t talk about the suspended mayor. Neither will the new mayor, Jose M. Diaz, no relation to the county commissioner.
During his tenure, the savvy Maroño accomplished something Sweetwater, seeking a boost to its property-tax base, had been pushing for years: to expand the city’s borders to include the Dolphin Mall. The city grew by roughly two square miles and nearly 6,500 people.
In 2010, Maroño got lucky betting on a dark political horse. He was one of the few Miami-Dade Republicans who broke with the establishment to support the long-shot gubernatorial candidacy of a Naples billionaire named Rick Scott. Maroño became Scott’s local guide, accompanying him to Little Havana’s Versailles restaurant and translating for Scott on Spanish-language radio.
When Scott narrowly won the election, Maroño’s profile skyrocketed.
He billed himself as a conduit to the governor. Republicans upset with Scott last year when he called a law prohibiting governments from hiring companies tied to Cuba unconstitutional vented to Maroño, who tried to smooth things over.
Two months ago, Maroño introduced Scott at the Miami-Dade GOP’s annual Lincoln Day fundraiser.
“Now it’s time for the bald guys,” he joked, referring to their shared look.
“Two handsome bald guys,” Scott added.
Maroño also started spending time at the state Capitol.
David Caserta, who briefly lobbied for Sweetwater during the 2011 legislative session, said he remembers Maroño dropping by Tallahassee.
“He seemed like a really nice guy,” Caserta said. “I would see him every once in a while up there, so I’m assuming he probably got involved. People knew him.”
But what Maroño did in Tallahassee isn’t clear. There was not much to push for on behalf of his city. And he did not register to lobby for anyone.
His buddy Forte, however, did. Records show Forte registered to lobby the executive branch beginning in 2011, Scott’s first year in office. Forte and Maroño had a consulting business named 7 Strategies, a hat tip to Scott’s campaign promise to use a seven-step plan to create 700,000 jobs.
“This is disappointing,” Scott said in a statement the day Maroño and Forte were arrested. “While we wait to see the evidence, the fact remains that elected officials must be held to the highest standard.”
Until his arrest, Maroño was president of the Florida League of Cities. It was during last year’s annual League conference at the Westin Diplomat Hotel in Hollywood that Maroño introduced the undercover FBI agents posing as crooked Chicago businessmen to other politicians who might be amenable to their plot, according to the criminal complaint.
As part of the scheme, Maroño had gotten Sweetwater to pass a resolution on Dec. 6, 2011, signing off on the feasibility study for the purported federal grant.
Then, at a March 2, 2012, meeting at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, Maroño introduced the businessmen to Forte, his former chief of staff. Maroño called him his “right hand man” and asked them to go through Forte to get to him.
“There’s certain things I can’t do,” Maroño explained during the secretly recorded get-together.
Maroño and Forte negotiated their cut. Maroño excused himself before Forte worked out details of the first payment — $20,000 cash over three months.
Forte collected the installments. At an April 19, 2012, Miami Heat game against the Chicago Bulls, the agents asked Maroño if he was fine with the way the deal was going.
“Maroño nodded and said everything was satisfactory,” according to the complaint.
For setting up meetings with other public officials — even though none agreed to take part in the scheme — Maroño and Forte collected $20,000, prosecutors said. The first $5,000 payment came in an envelope stuffed with cash delivered to Forte in a car driven by Maroño.
After receiving a $10,000 payment, a wiretap recorded Forte and Maroño allegedly discussing the money on the telephone.
“Five, five ... each,” Forte said. The feds took that to mean that the men were splitting the money evenly.
When the scheme moved into its second phase — divvying up proceeds from a $1.2 million grant to Sweetwater — Maroño and Forte agreed to receive a 10 percent cut, or $120,000 over one year. Maroño took another call from a supposed auditor in which he lied about receiving a report on city underemployment from the Chicago businessmen, according to the complaint.
Forte collected $20,000 of that money, again to be split with the mayor, according to the complaint.
But after accepting the first $10,000 installment, Forte complained to an undercover agent that he needed to “chill out” about asking Maroño if he was happy with the deal.
Forte conveyed the same concern to lobbyist Candia: The Chicago businessmen were not being discreet enough.
Maroño, Candia told the feds, “doesn’t like doing that stuff on his phone, or no text, or anything like that.”
Miami Herald political writer Marc Caputo, researcher Monika K. Leal and writer Rodolfo Roman, and El Nuevo Herald reporter Brenda Medina, contributed to this report.
A previous version of this article misstated where Maroño went to high school and under what circumstances he was escorted from City Hall when he was arrested. He attended Coral Park Senior High School — though not with Forte — and he was not escorted in handcuffs.