Richard Candia, the lobbyist in the middle of an alleged corruption racket involving the mayors of Miami Lakes and Sweetwater, pleaded guilty to a pair of fraud charges in federal court Wednesday.
Candia admitted he played a crucial role in recruiting Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi and Sweetwater Mayor Manny Maroño into a kickback scheme, which was actually a sting directed by the FBI, according to court records. Maroño's right-hand man, Jorge Luis Forte, was also snared in the undercover operation.
The probe revolved around a “sham” federal grant program that prosecutors say was designed to line the pockets of the mayors, Candia and Forte, instead of benefiting their cities.
Candia was charged in one conspiracy case with Pizzi, and in another with Maroño and Forte last August — considered among Miami-Dade's biggest corruption busts in years.
Never miss a local story.
Maroño and Forte have already pleaded guilty to fraud charges entailing $60,000 in kickback payments for the Sweetwater grant deals. The former political allies were sentenced to about 3 1/2 years and 1 year, respectively.
Candia, whose sentencing is set for Aug. 6, pleaded guilty to two conspiracies to commit “honest services” fraud. He is likely to receive a prison sentence of two years, partly because he “flipped” and agreed to make what prosecutors say was a final cash payment to Pizzi, the Miami Lakes mayor.
For his part, Candia allegedly received at least $16,000 in kickbacks for the Sweetwater grant deals — three times more than the sum originally disclosed by authorities after his arrest. Candia also received $500 for arranging Pizzi's first meeting with FBI undercover agents. The lobbyist must repay all that money to the U.S. government.
Under the plea agreement negotiated by his defense attorney, William Barzee, Candia is expected to be a key witness for the prosecution in the upcoming trial of Pizzi, who has repeatedly denied the corruption allegations. His trial is scheduled to start on July 8.
U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke recently rejected a move by Pizzi’s lawyers, Ed Shohat and Ben Kuehne, to dismiss the case, based on defense accusations that prosecutors Jared Dwyer and Bob Senior destroyed evidence, among other claims.
Pizzi is accused of accepting $6,750 in cash kickbacks and check donations for his support of purported federal grant deals in Miami Lakes and Medley, where he worked as the town attorney.
The suspended Miami Lakes mayor told the Herald that he accepted no illegal money from Candia or FBI undercover agents.
Candia, after he was confronted by the FBI last June, agreed to cooperate in an undercover role to target Pizzi. The lobbyist allegedly gave Pizzi an envelope stuffed with $3,000 cash in the closet of his Medley office last July, in exchange for supporting a “bogus” grant application in Miami Lakes, according to court records.
But Pizzi countered the money was actually meant to reimburse him for expenses he incurred on behalf of a Miami Lakes political action committee.
Overall, Pizzi said he agreed to support the grant applications for economic assessments of Miami Lakes and Medley because he believed they would benefit those cities.
In an email response, Pizzi called Candia “a liar who would say and do anything to help himself.”
Before his arrest, Candia had a solid reputation among public officials and fellow lobbyists from Miami-Dade to Tallahassee, according to those questioned for a Miami Herald profile.
With a mop of dark hair that belied his 49 years, the hard-working Candia was seemingly everywhere in the halls of state and local government.
But one fellow Miami-Dade lobbyist, Michael Kesti, told the FBI that Candia had a darker side. Kesti, the Herald reported, was the confidential informant who in May 2011 tipped off the FBI to Candia as someone who was potentially corruptible.
Candia introduced Kesti and the undercover agents to Pizzi. Candia also paved the way for the agents to approach Maroño and Forte.
The FBI criminal complaints against the four defendants excerpted secret recordings of the men as they allegedly schemed with Kesti and two undercover agents masquerading as sleazy businessmen from Chicago. They posed as owners of a grant-application business, Sunshine Universal, that could tap into an actual federal government program for economic development, AmeriCorps.
The transcripts show that Candia had a shrewd understanding of the two politicians and Forte, who was accused of acting as Maroño's bagman, taking illicit payoffs on behalf of the mayor.
Candia identified Maroño as ripe for the conspiracy from the very beginning.
“[Maroño]'s not gonna be shy, shy to ask for sh-t,” Candia told the agents in a meeting on Sept. 23, 2011. “I mean, there will be no end.”
Days before, the undercover FBI agents met with Candia to make clear that what they were doing was illegal and that they were motivated by greed.
Under the scheme, the fake company would apply for a federal grant on behalf of the city. The conspirators — not the municipality — would then divvy up the proceeds.
“The play here is for the money,” one agent told Candia, “for us to get the money and be able to use the money, you know, and just make money.”