Three years before he was arrested on federal corruption charges, Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi met a political ally in the parking lot of Shula’s Steak House.
The topic of conversation: getting rid of Pizzi’s nemesis on the town council.
What Pizzi did not know was that his ally, Tom McGrath, wore a bug and was secretly working with Miami-Dade County detectives.
The men spoke about planting cocaine on then-Councilman Richard Pulido, a plot intended to get the man arrested. Pizzi, spewing F-bombs, said he was open to other schemes, promising $100,000 in cash to get Pulido off the council.
“I don’t care what you do. Rig the f------- brakes on his car. F------ take him out. I don’t want to see him anymore,” said Pizzi in the July 30, 2010, undercover recording obtained by the Miami Herald through a public records request.
In a series of meetings over the next month, however, Pizzi never expanded upon the threats toward Pulido. He soon told McGrath, a retired Hialeah cop who at the time chaired the town’s planning and zoning board, “Forget about him; he will self-destruct himself.” Not long after, police suspended the investigation without charging anybody with anything, officially closing it earlier this year.
‘NEVER A REAL HIT’
Pizzi, in a statement on Friday, said he categorically denied “intending personal or political harm to Richard Pulido or anyone else,” saying he had a bit too much to drink that evening and was goaded by McGrath into “meaningless, over the top, silly, ridiculous drinking talk.” He amended his statement Saturday, saying he was actually “humoring” McGrath, a man who he said engaged in “Oliver Stone conspiracy lunacies.”
Pizzi’s attorneys also dismissed the probe as a non-story that they say never should have been made public, noting that detectives quickly found there wasn’t evidence to support allegations that the now-suspended Miami Lakes mayor would harm Pulido.
They called McGrath an unreliable informant who targeted Pizzi at Shula’s after an evening of drinking — though McGrath told detectives that Pizzi had only two beers. They also argued that McGrath’s recording doesn’t show sinister intent but simply a passionate, drunken politician venting about an opponent.
“This was never a real ‘hit’ investigation,” said attorney Ben Kuehne, who is representing Pizzi with attorney Ed Shohat. “And therein lies the problem with the story,” said Shohat.
Pizzi, 51, who was arrested in August, faces arraignment Friday on federal corruption charges accusing him of extorting $6,000 in kickbacks from FBI undercover agents purporting to operate a grant business that could deliver government money to Miami Lakes and Medley, where he worked as the town attorney. His defense lawyers said they will enter a not guilty plea on his behalf at the arraignment.
The series of Miami-Dade investigative reports and covert audio recordings have been turned over to federal law enforcement authorities. At the very least, they aren’t likely to help the mayor’s defense in fighting the federal charges.
Pulido, the target of Pizzi’s venting, said the undercover tape revealed a dark side the public didn’t see but political opponents often felt.
“Unfortunately,” Pulido said, “this is yet another despicable example of Mr. Pizzi’s tyranny and bully tactics.”
Pulido, 41, a private school administrator who lost his council seat last year, said he was shaken by the revelations.
“When my wife and I first heard the tape and read the police report, we were frightened and deeply saddened by the possibility that our children were placed in harm’s way by Mr. Pizzi’s plan to physically hurt me,” said Pulido, who learned about the allegations from a Herald reporter, not the police.
McGrath, the confidential informant who agreed to speak with two Herald reporters, said he also took Pizzi’s threats against Pulido seriously.
There was only one recording of Pizzi’s threats. But police records show McGrath reported his concerns after claiming Pizzi had raised the topic of planting narcotics in Pulido’s vehicle on two earlier occasions.
“He said it more than once, at least to me,” McGrath said, calling his undercover tape recording of Pizzi “very self explanatory. I don’t know why they didn’t take it until the end. I think they had plenty. Could they make it stick? I don’t know.”
McGrath told police that part of Pizzi’s “hatred” of Pulido stemmed from the councilman’s opposition to a development deal opening vacant land to more than 500 homes, a project requiring the paving of eight blocks of Northwest 87th Avenue. In 2011, the town council, led by Pizzi, voted 6-1 to back the project, with Pulido as the dissenter.
The 2010 probe run by the Miami-Dade police corruption bureau petered out after Pizzi never followed up on the threats recorded that night outside Shula’s. Detectives noted in their investigative report that Pizzi appeared to have grown “apprehensive in dealing” with McGrath and was “backing away” from him, leading to “negative results” in their last few meetings.
The investigation was largely suspended in October 2010, with one follow-up police surveillance of Pizzi in November 2011. It was formally closed earlier this year. But a series of reports from two-and-a-half months of active investigation, and a scratchy five-minute segment in a three-hour recording, also show a mayor talking like a wannabe wiseguy — even if the threats ultimately proved to be hot air.
The now-closed Miami-Dade police probe began in the summer of 2010, when McGrath contacted Miami-Dade’s public corruption bureau with a startling revelation.
McGrath, the former president of the Windmill Gates Homeowners Association, chaired the town’s planning and zoning board for more than two years. He was a former Hialeah police officer who was shot, by mistake, by an undercover Dade police officer during an undercover drug bust in 1974.
McGrath, police reports show, claimed that Pizzi first floated the idea of McGrath planting cocaine inside Pulido’s car over a July 19, 2010, lunch in Miami Lakes. The idea, he said, was that Pizzi would then tip off the cops, who would arrest Pulido, and also tip off the media.
McGrath, in the police report, said he initially “believed it was just Mr. Pizzi ranting his frustrations and paid no attention to his comments.”
But three days later, at a dinner party at El Pimiento Restaurant, Pizzi led McGrath out to the parking lot, again to propose the idea, according to the police report. McGrath then went to police, agreeing to wear a secret electronic recording device, to try and build a case against Pizzi.
The undercover operation, however, did not go smoothly.
Days later, the wired-up McGrath was supposed to meet with the mayor at a town council meeting “after party” at the Billiards Club, a popular Miami Lakes haunt where federal agents later claimed Pizzi accepted illegal cash in the unrelated federal bribery case. Pizzi never showed.
Then on July 30, 2010, McGrath — again wired up — attended a play with Pizzi and his girlfriend in Miami Lakes, then had drinks with the mayor afterward at Shula’s on Main Street. Most of the night was captured on the police audio recording.
As they were leaving, Pizzi pulled McGrath aside and “spoke about getting rid of Councilman Richard Pulido at any cost and even offered [him] $100,000 for the deed,” according to the police report.
On the recording that night, the two men also discussed the possibility of the original cocaine-planting scheme.
“How do I get it?” McGrath asked.
“The coke? How difficult is that, Tom?” Pizzi said.
McGrath suggested waiting for Pulido to lose an election in two years.
“I don’t want to wait that long,” Pizzi said. “You have my word. If he’s off the council, a hundred-thousand in cash. That simple.”
“Any way?” McGrath asked.
“Any way,” Pizzi replied.
Pizzi said, twice, that he was “serious.”
“Call me before the weekend is out. I want to know what your plan is. I’m serious. You think I’m f------ around? I’ve got the cash,” Pizzi said on the audio recording.
McGrath reported to police that Pizzi told him a supporter on the town council, Nick Perdomo, was “on board with the plan” In a garbled portion of the audio Pizzi mentions that “he spoke to Nick,” though no last name is mentioned.
Perdomo said he had “absolutely no knowledge” of any plot against Pulido, according to a statement issued Friday through his lawyer, Michael Diaz.
Perdomo, the owner of a well-known cigar business who politically sparred with Pulido over the 87th Avenue residential development, said he believes Pizzi was dropping his name to impress McGrath.
“This has upset and shocked me, my family, and my friends, as we have worked hard to build our business, good name, reputation and, more importantly, our commitment to the community,” he said. “I am outraged at the suggestion made by Mr. Pizzi that I would have had any knowledge or played any part in such unethical, unlawful and criminal conduct.”
In an interview with the Herald, McGrath also said he did not believe Perdomo was involved in Pizzi’s alleged scheme.
‘PROOF IS IN PUDDING’
After the recorded threats, the investigation ramped up. Detectives called the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office to get prosecutors on board and detectives began following Pizzi.
But the mayor never revisited the threat. During an Aug. 2, 2010, meeting at the Billiards Club, McGrath said that Pizzi mentioned nothing when asked about the plan, instead holding a note scribbled on a piece of paper: “Expect a call tomorrow.” The call never came.
On Aug. 5, Pizzi did target Pulido — but only with a prank. Pizzi put two of a rival’s campaign bumper stickers on the councilman’s car. Surveillance cameras captured him doing it, and Pizzi apologized, saying it was intended to create “camaraderie.”
“I told him, Mike, next time, buy me a beer,” Pulido told the Miami Herald at the time. “Don’t put something on my car that you clearly know I don’t want there.”
Over a month, Pizzi dodged follow-up efforts by McGrath to discuss a plan, ignoring text and meeting requests. Eventually, at a Sept. 3 meeting, the police report quotes Pizzi telling McGrath to forget about Pulido.
Pizzi, in the statement Friday, said that shortly after the discussion outside Shula’s, he had told McGrath that he “should just leave him and everyone else to their own devices. The proof is in the pudding and I am gratified that this is a long forgotten matter of over three years ago and no wrongdoing was found on my part by anyone no matter where they looked or what wild goose chase they followed.”
The former mayor, in a follow-up statement Saturday, blamed McGrath for continually bringing up Pulido as an enemy. He said he was only playing along and “parodying” as McGrath pushed for some sort of plot. McGrath told the Miami Herald last week that it was Pizzi who first brought up threatening Pulido several times, an allegation that became the basis for the police probe.
Pizzi’s attorneys, Kuehne and Shohat, called the Miami-Dade probe another example of “virtue testing” — a form of entrapment — that was instigated by McGrath, who made a variety of accusations they say turned out to be unfounded.
Both lawyers also said that law enforcement agencies have carried out a full four years of investigations against Pizzi that have turned up nothing — except, arguably, the current federal case.
“It’s irresponsible to run this story,” Shohat said. “The investigation never even rose to the level where police warned Pulido that he was in any danger.”
During the investigation, Miami-Dade police did shadow Pulido to and from council meetings to ensure no harm came to him. But when Pizzi never followed up with plans, they decided not to inform Pulido about the allegations because they deemed the risk had subsided.