Since his arrest in August, suspended Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi has defiantly claimed he committed no crime after he was accused of accepting $6,000 in an alleged cash-for-contract scam.
On Friday, the two-term mayor, surrounded by an entourage of defense lawyers and political supporters, pleaded not guilty to an indictment charging him with seeking kickbacks in exchange for sponsoring federal grant applications that prosecutors say were meant to enrich him.
Even the magistrate judge, John J. O’Sullivan, took notice: “A lot of people here for one person.”
Pizzi, indicted Thursday by a federal grand jury in Miami, is charged with conspiring to commit extortion and four counts of attempted bribery. If convicted, each count carries up to 20 years in prison.
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Outside the Miami federal courthouse, Pizzi and his defense team, Ed Shohat, Ben Kuehne and Ralf Rodriguez, declared the former mayor would go to trial instead of cutting a plea deal — as another local mayor and two lobbyists accused of the same crime are expected to do in the coming weeks.
“I am innocent, I am not guilty,” Pizzi said repeatedly, with his lawyers and about 25 supporters standing with him. “And I will be exonerated and found not guilty at trial.”
Pizzi made his name as a maverick populist who took on top Miami-Dade officials, developers and rock miners over the county’s westward expansion. But since his suspension as Miami Lakes’ mayor following the FBI’s sting operation, Pizzi has lost his public pulpit.
In emails sent to the Miami Herald this week, the 51-year-old politician has complained of the negative coverage, saying he deserves a “balanced picture” of his career as a “people’s champion with no record of corruption during my tenure as mayor.”
On Sunday, the Herald reported that in 2010 Miami-Dade detectives opened an undercover probe based on alleged threats that Pizzi made to a confidential police informant. In a secretly recorded conversation, the mayor said he wanted to “take out” a rival Miami Lakes town councilman by rigging the brakes on his car or planting cocaine in his vehicle. Police dropped the probe after Pizzi never followed up on the scheme, and the mayor branded the recording as nothing more than “silly, ridiculous drinking talk.”
The new indictment, filed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jared Dwyer, portrays Pizzi as a politician who knew the alleged federal grant scheme was a “money grab.”
Initially, Pizzi was accused of the extortion plot in a criminal complaint along with Miami-Dade lobbyist Richard Candia. In a separate complaint, Candia also was accused of the same offense with Sweetwater Mayor Manny Maroño and lobbyist Jorge Forte.
All were accused of participating in a “bogus” grant scheme designed to line their pockets with thousands of dollars while their towns would get nothing. The sting operation was orchestrated by the FBI’s anti-corruption agents, who posed as Chicago businessmen claiming they would obtain the grant money for an economic development study and share the proceeds with the two mayors and two lobbyists.
According to the indictment, Pizzi collected three payments totaling $6,000 in cash and received $750 in checks for his 2012 reelection campaign in exchange for championing resolutions that paved the way for grant applications in Miami Lakes and in Medley. Pizzi also worked as Medley’s town attorney.
What’s not clear is how Pizzi will defend himself at trial: He has not explicitly denied receiving any of that cash. Instead, in the days after his arrest, he said in a statement that he “accepted no money inappropriately or illegally from anyone, ever.”
Separately, Maroño and Forte were accused of accepting a total of $60,000 in cash and checks for the same scheme in Sweetwater. They allegedly tried to shop the grant scheme to other South Florida politicians, but with no success.
Last week, both pleaded not guilty to one charge of a fraud conspiracy, but they are expected to change their pleas to guilty.
Candia allegedly received $5,000 in cash for the Sweetwater deal. He also received $500 for introducing Pizzi to the FBI undercover agents posing as the Chicago businessmen for a company called Sunshine Universal and to an FBI confidential informant, South Miami-Dade lobbyist Michael Kesti.
Kesti had approached the FBI two years ago with suspicions that Candia was in bed with corrupt local politicians, and that Pizzi and Maroño would be open to lining their pockets.
Candia, whose own plea to formal charges was postponed Friday, could be a key witness because he initially introduced the undercover agents to the two mayors. In late June, Candia agreed to cooperate with the government after the agents confronted him for the first time.