Manuel Maroño, once a powerful local politician who counted Florida’s governor among his friends, was sentenced to more than three years in prison Thursday by a federal judge who admonished him for accepting bribes as the mayor of Sweetwater.
Maroño, who will surrender to serve his term on March 31, apologized for his role in a corruption conspiracy stemming from an FBI sting operation, in which he accepted thousands of dollars in kickbacks in exchange for supporting sham government grant applications.
“I stand here today as a humble man,” Maroño, 42, told U.S. District Judge William Zloch. “I made a mistake and I’m here to accept my responsibility.”
Zloch quickly reminded the longtime politician, who served as Sweetwater’s mayor for 10 years, that he pleaded guilty to “a crime, not a mistake.”
“I had the people’s trust and I failed them,” Maroño said, head bowed.
About 100 family members, friends and colleagues showed up in Fort Lauderdale federal court to support the disgraced former mayor. A Miami father asked the judge to show “mercy” for Maroño, saying he had helped him search for his missing son in the Gainesville area in fall 2012. The son was eventually found dead. Zloch expressed his sympathy.
Maroño’s defense lawyers also highlighted the “good things” he did for Sweetwater while serving as mayor of the small west Miami-Dade city. Among them: Helping to eliminate chronic flooding problems in Sweetwater; expanding the city’s commercial base by annexing the area around the Dolphin Mall; and building a high-rise residential project to house Florida International University students.
“He was there for everybody,” said one of Maroño’s defense attorneys, Kendall Coffey.
But the judge devoted the main part of his sentencing hearing to denouncing the plague of public corruption in South Florida, calling it a “cancer.”
Zloch even challenged why federal prosecutors joined with the former mayor’s defense attorneys in recommending the low end of a sentencing guideline for Maroño: 37-to 46-months.
“Would you agree that public corruption has become commonplace in our society?” the judge asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Jared Dwyer.
“I would agree with that,” Dwyer said.
In defending the proposed 37-month sentence, the prosecutor said Maroño quickly accepted responsibility for his crime of “pay-to-play” politics, sending a message to other corrupt politicians and allowing the city of Sweetwater to begin cleaning up its business.
Coffey, a former U.S. attorney in Miami, also chimed in.
“Federal prison sends an incredible message to politicians,” said Coffey, who worked on Maroño’s defense with another former federal prosecutor, Armando Rosquete. “They’re scared to death of it.”
Coffey said the former mayor’s federal case has been a “complete disaster for Manny Maroño.”
After some self-reflection on the bench, the judge did his own math and added three months to their joint recommendation to make Maroño’s prison term a total of 40 months.
Zloch imposed no fine after learning that the former mayor, who ran a towing business, was broke. He also ordered Maroño to pay back $30,000 that he had taken in bribes from the FBI undercover agents in the sting operation.
In November, Maroño and lobbyist Jorge Forte, former political allies and business partners, pleaded guilty to an honest-services conspiracy charge that accused them of illegally splitting $60,000 in cash and checks for official favors and concealing those payments from the public. Both agreed to promote a sham federal grant program for economic development that was peddled by FBI undercover agents who paid them bribes for their political support in Sweetwater.
Forte, 42, is likely to receive a lower sentence because he was not a public official and, more significantly, he helped the feds seal their case against the former Sweetwater mayor when the lobbyist agreed to help FBI agents just before they arrested Maroño in August. Forte is scheduled for sentencing on Feb. 6.
Their demise as movers and shakers in local politics — Maroño was also close to Gov. Rick Scott — reverberated throughout Miami-Dade County.
Outside the federal courthouse Thursday, Maroño was swarmed by reporters, photographers and TV cameras.
“Today is a good day,” the former mayor said, standing with his wife, Jennifer, and one of their two sons. “Justice has been served. The city of Sweetwater is bigger than one person. It’s time to move on.”
Two others facing similar kickback charges resulting from the same FBI sting operation are former Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi, 51, and lobbyist Richard Candia, 49, though both allegedly received far less money than Maroño and Forte.
Pizzi pleaded not guilty and faces trial in May. Candia, who flipped for federal investigators by assisting their undercover probe, is expected to plead guilty to corruption charges.
According to initial criminal complaints, the two mayors and two lobbyists accepted thousands of dollars in bribes in exchange for championing purported federal grant applications for their towns. But in reality, the men were in cahoots to enrich themselves, according to FBI affidavits filed with the criminal complaints.