Last year, Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi grabbed a clear plastic baggie containing two cigars and an envelope stuffed with $2,000 that two FBI undercover agents had placed for him on a bar table in a local billiard hall.
But what happened after that was a subject of great dispute Wednesday during opening statements of the suspended mayor’s bribery trial in Miami federal court.
Prosecutor Jared Dwyer told the 12-person jury that the mayor took the zip-lock baggie into the men’s restroom and exited without it in his hands. “Mr. Pizzi got the $2,000 that night,” he said, noting the alleged payoff was recorded at the Miami Lakes billiard hall.
The 51-year-old Pizzi, arrested last August in an FBI sting operation, is accused of accepting that bribe and three others in exchange for officially supporting bogus federal grant applications in Miami Lakes and Medley, where he also worked as the town attorney. His trial, before U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke, is expected to last one month.
For the first time, Pizzi’s defense team revealed that the mayor did take the baggie off the table at the billiard hall, but said he gave away the cigars to another patron before going to the restroom — without realizing there was $2,000 cash inside the envelope.
“Mike Pizzi gave the bag away because he thought it was [holding] only two cigars,” attorney Ed Shohat told the jurors. “He didn’t end up with the $2,000, but somebody else ended up with the $2,000.”
Shohat said the defense plans to call that person as a witness as part of an overall strategy to counter the prosecution’s portrayal of Pizzi as a “corrupt” politician.”
In opening statements, Dwyer argued that Pizzi pocketed bribes from a now-convicted Miami-Dade County lobbyist and the undercover agents posing as sleazy businessmen. By dangling bribes in front of him, they talked the mayor into supporting the federal grant proposals purportedly to spur job growth in his community and the neighboring town of Medley.
Dwyer said Pizzi intentionally grabbed the money and campaign checks to line his pockets — a total of $6,750 — knowing that Miami Lakes and Medley would not be benefiting from any federal grants for a jobs feasbility study.
“This case is about a powerful politician who sold his power, who sold his position,” Dwyer told the jurors.
In Pizzi’s defense, Shohat said the federal case was “horribly flawed” on several levels, including the sting operation’s premise, the FBI’s investigative techniques and the prosecution’s get-rich allegation.
“He didn’t sell his office,” argued Shohat, who is handling the defense with three other lawyers, Ben Kuehne, Michael Davis and Ralf Rodriguez. “He didn’t risk his entire career for $6,750.”
The FBI undercover operation was launched in 2011 after public-corruption agents retained Miami-Dade lobbyist Michael Kesti as an informant. Kesti, who would be paid $114,000 in fees and expenses including a rented Lexus, told the FBI there were several corrupt lobbyists and politicians in the county.
Their first target was Miami-Dade lobbyist Richard Candia, who had Miami Lakes as a client and was close to Pizzi.
Kesti, along with two undercover agents, pitched Candia on the scheme of approaching various municipal mayors about applying for actual federal economic-development grants — with the goal of keeping the money for themselves. The two agents pretended to be sketchy businessmen from a Chicago grant-writing business called Sunshine Universal.
After Candia got on board, he recommended that Pizzi would be open to the scam. “He knew it was a corrupt deal,” Dwyer told jurors. “He acted on a corrupt deal.”
Dwyer outlined the four bribes that Pizzi allegedly accepted from 2011 to 2013:
• $750 in three campaign checks received from Kesti, for the Medley grant proposal.
• $1,000 paid by Candia at a Starbucks cafe in Miami Lakes, for the Medley deal. The cash was allegedly tucked inside a newspaper.
• $2,000 paid by the two FBI undercover agents at the billiard hall, for the Miami Lakes grant application.
• $3,000 paid by Candia in the storage closet of Pizzi’s town attorney office in Medley, for the Miami Lakes deal.
Just before making the final payoff last July, Candia was confronted by FBI agents about the alleged scheme. He agreed to cooperate by wearing a wire for the last sting against the mayor.
Pizzi’s attorney, Shohat, told jurors that the mayor never received the $1,000 from Candia or the $2,000 from the undercover agents.
Shohat acknowledged that Pizzi received the $750 in check donations for his 2012 reelection campaign for mayor, but said the contributions were legitimate. He also admitted that Pizzi received the $3,000, but said it was intended for one of the mayor’s political action committees, for which he had already spent a lot of his own money.
Shohat said the FBI’s recordings show that Pizzi told the agents repeatedly that he would not get involved in a “bogus” grant scheme that was a “money grab.”
“I can’t do that,” Shohat quoted Pizzi as saying during the early stages of the sting operation.
Pizzi is the only defendant, among four politicians and lobbyists arrested last August in two separate FBI undercover operations, to go to trial.
Sweetwater Mayor Manuel “Manny” Maroño and lobbyist Jorge Forte pleaded guilty and are serving prison terms. Candia, the prosecution’s cooperating witness in the Pizzi trial, also pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing.