Until federal agents began swarming over the city the past several months, Sweetwater seemed as nondescript as its City Hall — a three-story concrete box surrounded by working-class homes and an auto repair shop, tamale stand and passport office down the street.
Now, the tiny West Miami-Dade city is quickly becoming famous for something other than its perennial flooding problems and the quirky fact that it was founded by Russian circus midgets.
The city’s disgraced mayor and a lobbyist crony — both convicted last month in federal court — admitted pocketing $60,000 in kickbacks after getting nailed in an FBI sting operation. But the bust only scratched the surface of a culture of corruption that has infested City Hall, which is shared by Sweetwater officials and the police department.
Federal agents are trying to unravel the tangled tentacles of ex-Mayor Manny Maroño’s association with a towing company, in which he has been a suspected silent partner. The city’s no-bid, verbal agreement with Southland The Towing Company, which state records show the mayor once owned, filled police coffers with wads of cash from fines — funds controlled by the recently resigned police chief, a Maroño ally. Some of that cash, deposited into a postal-type box inside the police department, was found to be missing.
The arrangement also gave Sweetwater and the towing company the opportunity to sell dozens of seized cars at auction. And it gave some police officers the chance to take joy rides in luxury vehicles, including an ultra-sleek Porsche Panamera.
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And then there is Maverick, a handsome black Percheron horse purchased with $5,000 in city funds for a mounted patrol at the Dolphin Mall. The horse instead wound up at the Homestead ranch of a former Sweetwater police lieutenant.
‘Like a criminal enterprise’
Longtime resident Deborah Centeno, who lost two bids for the City Commission in recent years, said the FBI has put a long-needed spotlight on a nepotism-riddled political system that has benefited the former mayor, his family and his friends — not the taxpayers.
“It was a like a criminal enterprise,” Centeno said. “But now Sweetwater is getting a very aggressive treatment to get rid of that cancer of corruption. And that’s very positive for my city.”
In the near future, the U.S. attorney’s office is expected to charge the three police officers. But the towing investigation, which focuses on possible kickbacks to city officials and police officers in an alleged extortion racket, could lead to other arrests down the road.
The former mayor and his defense lawyers, Armando Rosquete and Kendall Coffey, declined to comment about the feds’ probe of Maroño’s interest in a handful of companies, including Southland The Towing Company and Southeast Towing, Inc. His recent guilty plea to the kickback charge in an agreement with the U.S. attorney’s office does not protect him from potential criminal liability in the towing probe.
Maroño claims he got out of the towing business in 2009, but legal records and sources familiar with the former mayor’s companies say he is a silent investor with “front men” representing his interests.
In the towing probe, Maroño chose not to cooperate with the FBI and prosecutors. The possible reason: He did not want to implicate family members and friends who have been involved in his business and political dealings while he served as mayor from 2003 until his removal from office in August.
Among those close to Maroño: Southland’s current owner, Robert Muriedas; Southland’s former owner, Peter Hernandez; former Southland employee Jose Guerra, a Sweetwater commissioner; and the city’s attorney, Ralph Ventura, who has also represented Southland. And then, of course, there are the ex-mayor’s relatives: his mother, Isolina Maroño, also a city commissioner; his uncle, Antero Espinosa, who recently resigned as the city’s director of maintenance; and Maroño’s wife, Jenny Munoz-Maroño, who works as the city’s coordinator of special projects. The couple, who had been divorced, remarried after his arrest in August.
The scope of the towing probe is significant if a recently filed class-action case against the city is any indication. The suit, filed in Miami federal court, claims that Sweetwater police and officials violated the constitutional rights of more than 100 people whose vehicles were seized, towed and auctioned after the motorists were unlawfully detained on trumped-up charges, such as shoplifting, and required to pay a $500 fine to the city.
The plaintiff’s lawyer, Rick Diaz, said the Sweetwater cops mostly targeted drivers whose cars were fully paid off so there would be no hassle clearing titles before Southland and the city sold off the confiscated vehicles.
The city is seeking to dismiss the case. Since the mayor’s kickback scandal rocked City Hall, Sweetwater has lowered the towing fine to $250.
Before all these setbacks, Sweetwater was gaining a reputation as one of Florida’s fastest-growing cities, with about 21,000 people, most of Cuban, Nicaraguan and other Latin origins. The blue-collar city’s biggest coup was the annexation of the area around the Dolphin Mall, a tax-generating shopping mecca known for its name-brand discount stores.
The city’s neighbors — Florida International University to the south and Doral to the north — were rapidly expanding, too.
But Sweetwater’s image would change for the worse on the morning of Aug. 6. FBI agents swooped in on the city in the final stages of a sting operation targeting Mayor Maroño and his close friend, lobbyist Jorge Forte.
When agents first approached Forte, who had once served as the mayor’s chief of staff, he admitted that he and Maroño were splitting thousands of dollars in kickbacks in exchange for official favors.
Forte quickly agreed to cooperate in the FBI’s undercover operation and arranged to meet the mayor in the lobbyist’s car outside City Hall. Forte, wearing a recording device, handed Maroño $5,000 in cash — a bribe from a fictitious Chicago company that was a means to lure both men into a bogus federal-grant scheme.
Forte’s flipping on his friend was revealed for the first time in mid-November, when the former political allies and business partners pleaded guilty to a corruption conspiracy charge in Fort Lauderdale federal court. The honest-services fraud charge accused them of illegally splitting $60,000 in cash and checks for official favors, and concealing those payments from the public.
“I did this for personal benefit,” Maroño told U.S. District Judge William Zloch. Outside the courthouse, the former mayor apologized to his city and thanked his supporters. “I made a mistake and I’m here to accept responsibility and move on.”
“The city is not defined by one person,” he added.
Maroño, 42, faces at least three years in prison at a Jan. 23 sentencing hearing. Forte, 41, is likely to receive a much lower sentence because he was not a public official and, more significantly, he helped the feds seal their case against the now-suspended Sweetwater mayor. Maroño was replaced by the vice mayor, and the next municipal election is in 2015.
Troubled police department
City Hall wasn’t Sweetwater’s only problem. The police department, with 39 full-time officers, was reeling from mismanagement, bad hires and shenanigans.
Just weeks after the August takedown of the mayor and his colleague, the FBI arrested a Sweetwater police detective on charges of credit-card fraud and identity theft. Officer William Garcia, suspended without pay, was accused of using phony credit cards at Miami Beach, Key Largo and other South Florida establishments, and stealing other people’s card numbers.
Then, out of the blue, the Sweetwater Police Department relieved two other officers of duty: Detective Octavio Oliu and acting Sgt. Reny Garcia, both now under federal investigation.
Oliu, who had been forced to resign from his previous job as a Miami-Dade County officer in 2007, was hired by the Sweetwater Police Department in 2010. Garcia joined the force in 2006.
Also relieved of duty: Richard Brenner, a civilian employee who worked as a red-light camera monitor and was a member of the department’s police auxiliary since 2011. According to sources, Brenner was suspended because he was working as a Sweetwater police officer, including making arrests, without being a sworn member of the department.
FBI anti-corruption agents have been building a broader case around the three officers, including gathering computer and other records from the police department and questioning local officials, according to sources.
The crackdown has people saying that “Dirtywater” might be a more apt name for the city, though longtime Sweetwater officials take umbrage with that characterization.
“What I’m concerned about is the residents of Sweetwater,” said former Sweetwater mayor and current Miami-Dade County Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz, who declined to talk about his problematic protégé, the convicted ex-mayor, or the city’s embattled police department.
“It’s a small town. I want it to move forward.”
The current mayor, Jose M. Diaz, the former vice mayor who is no relation to the county commissioner, shared the same sentiment: “I encourage the people of Sweetwater to be hopeful and faithful in the new administration, because we are going to fix things.”
That may take a while.
Longtime Chief Roberto Fulgueira, who was pals with Maroño, retired in late October amid the controversy engulfing his department, including his giving the no-bid towing contract to one of the ex-mayor’s former business partners. Money was also missing from the police evidence room.
In early October, Fulgueira asked a deputy chief to open a probe.
By the end of the month, city officials announced that thousands of dollars in cash were indeed missing from the police evidence room.
They also said money was missing from a separate collection of cash fines — at $500 a pop — paid by people who wanted to recover their towed vehicles after police arrests.
“As far as I know, it amounts to thousands of dollars,” Diaz, the mayor, said at a news conference in late October.
Diaz said the missing money from the evidence room had been seized during arrests.
The man in charge of supervising the evidence room at the time was Catalino Rodriguez, a longtime Sweetwater officer who resigned on Oct. 7, the same night he was named a city commissioner in the shake-up after the mayor’s removal from office.
He denied taking any money. “I don’t know anything about that,” Rodriguez said. “My conscience is clean.”
For years, the former police chief, Fulgueira, was responsible for reviewing the receipts and counting the money from the towing fees. Individual cash payments were wrapped in a copy of each invoice and deposited in the faux postal box located inside the police department.
Two people had keys to the box: Fulgueira and Rodriguez. According to Rodriguez, Fulgueira was the main person who would process the three to four payments of fines made on a weekly basis. After counting the money, he said, Fulgueira would hand the cash and invoices to the deputy chief, Roberto Ochoa, who would then deposit the money with the city’s finance department.
Fulgueira, who served on the Sweetwater police force for 32 years before resigning last month, did not returns calls for comment.
Publicly, the former chief said he wanted to leave for personal reasons, citing his ailing mother. But his exit could not have come at a more troubling time for Sweetwater.