Alleged bribe at Miami Lakes pool hall may decide suspended mayor’s fate

The defense has chipped away at the case against the suspended Miami Lakes mayor, but an alleged payoff at a billiard hall may decide the outcome of his bribery trial.

07/19/2014 7:40 PM

07/19/2014 8:36 PM

The fate of suspended Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi may hang on what he did during a boozy February night at a pool hall with a couple of FBI undercover agents — or rather what a dozen jurors ultimately believe he did.

Pizzi’s defense team has aggressively chipped away at the prosecution’s bribery case against the 51-year-old politician during his federal trial over the past two weeks.

His attorneys even compelled a key undercover agent to admit that the FBI had no actual evidence of corruption against the mayor before launching its sting operation, and that Pizzi never directly asked the agent and his partner for money in exchange for official favors.

Yet that same agent, a veteran undercover operator posing as a sleazy businessman from Chicago, offered up the strongest evidence against Pizzi so far.

FBI special agent Leonardo Durkacz said that Pizzi gave his instructions to a “bag man” — the now-convicted Miami-Dade lobbyist Richard Candia — on what he wanted for his influence on “bogus” federal grant applications that were meant to be a “money grab” for all of them.

This past week, Durkacz testified that he saw the mayor pick up a clear plastic bag holding two cigars and a white envelope stuffed with $2,000 at the Miami Lakes Billiard Club last year. He claimed he tapped his finger on the bag placed on a high-top bar table as a signal for Pizzi to grab it, and that Pizzi knew the cash was a bribe in exchange for supporting the grant application in Miami Lakes.

“I have the two special ones for you,” Durkacz, using the undercover name “Andy Gardner,” told Pizzi on the night of Feb. 28, 2013. “These are the two that Rich [Candia] wanted me to give you.”

Durkacz testified the FBI’s audio recording did not capture Pizzi acknowledging that he received the 20 $100 bills bundled in the envelope. But the agent said he witnessed the mayor grab it off the high-top table and take it directly to the men’s restroom at the pool hall.

“He took the bag in his hand, he put it to his side and he made a direct line for the bathroom,” Durkacz testified last week, adding that he saw Pizzi exit the restroom with nothing in his hands and return to a VIP section where he, his partner and the mayor were playing pool.

The agent further testified that, soon after, he searched the bathroom’s stalls and garbage bin, claiming he found no evidence of the clear plastic bag, two Fuentes cigars or the cash-stuffed envelope, which had a SunTrust logo on it.

Candia, the lobbyist who arranged the pool hall meeting between Pizzi and the undercover agents and was supposed to join them, didn’t show up.

Pizzi, arrested last August in an FBI sting operation, is accused of accepting the billiard club bribe and three others for a total of $6,750 in exchange for officially supporting the federal grant applications in Miami Lakes and Medley, where he also worked as a town attorney. His trial, before U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke, is expected to last until early August.

During opening statements earlier this month, Pizzi's defense team revealed that the mayor did take the plastic bag 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 inside the envelope.

Defense attorney Ed Shohat, pointing out that the mayor didn’t smoke, told jurors that Pizzi gave the bag away thinking it was holding only the two cigars. He said he plans to call as a witness the person who “ended up with that $2,000.”

During cross-examination Friday, Shohat pressured Durkacz, the FBI undercover agent, about his investigative procedures and report on the alleged pool hall bribe.

Shohat asked repeatedly why Durkacz, his undercover partner, and the FBI case agent, Paul Wright, did not take pictures of the plastic bag, the envelope and the cash before placing it on the high-top table in the billiard hall for Pizzi — so that jurors could evaluate the actual evidence. Instead, prosecutors Jared Dwyer and Bob Senior got the judge’s permission to put together a re-creation of the package to show to jurors.

Durkacz testified that his undercover team didn’t have the time to take photos of the evidence before the meeting with Pizzi at the pool hall.

Shohat also challenged whether Durkacz and his partner kept their eyes on Pizzi after he picked up the bag from the table and went to the bathroom.

The defense attorney noted there was “zero reference” in Durkacz’s FBI report on the alleged payoff that he was watching Pizzi the whole time as he went to the bathroom and returned to play pool with the agent and his partner.

Shohat also pointed out that Durkacz failed to mention in his direct testimony that two other men at the billiard hall had stopped to greet Pizzi, who introduced them to the undercover agents.

The FBI sting 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 Candia, the Miami-Dade lobbyist, who had Miami Lakes and Medley as clients and was close to Pizzi.

Kesti, along with the two undercover agents, pitched Candia on the scheme of approaching various municipal mayors about applying for actual federal economic-development grants through AmeriCorps — 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. They promised federal grants of $200,000 for a “boiler-plate” jobs study and as much as $1 million for helping municipalities carry out development programs.

After Candia got on board, he recommended that Pizzi “might be open” to the scam, Durkacz, the undercover agent, said during testimony. But Durkacz also said that Candia revealed he knew of no corruption in Pizzi’s past. Pizzi’s defense attorney, Shohat, hammered the agent on this point, too.

Shohat repeatedly revealed through his line of questioning that Pizzi was interested in the federal grant program only if it would generate money and jobs for Miami Lakes and Medley and would not cost those towns any administrative costs.

He pointed out that after Pizzi met with the two undercover agents and Kesti for dinner at the upscale Miami Beach steakhouse, Smith & Wollensky, on Feb. 29, 2012, the mayor got upset because the agents used such blunt language about the nature of the scam for the first time.

As the undercover agents sat in a car with Pizzi in the parking lot, Durkacz told the mayor: “I just want to be clear with you mayor, so that there are not any hard feelings down the road. But, you understand a lot of this s--- is just bogus. What we are doing here is just grabbing money.”

Pizzi’s recorded response: “I can’t do it if it’s just bogus. That I can’t do.”

Later, Pizzi emailed Kesti, the lobbyist and FBI informant, to call him. In a recorded phone conversation the next day, the mayor told Kesti that he thought the undercover agents’ language was “over the top” and he wanted to “hold off” on going forward with the federal grant application in Medley.

Kesti tried to vouch for the undercover agents, saying he had worked with Durkacz in the past on other grant deals. He also said they just wanted to “share the wealth” with him.

But the mayor warned Kesti: “In our position, you have to be f---ing careful because people might get the wrong impression. … We’re the good guys.”

The federal jurors heard these recordings — and many more — last week.

Despite Pizzi’s caution about going forward with the grant applications, he would reconnect with the undercover agents through Candia after his reelection as mayor in November 2012.

After winning his second term, Pizzi allegedly accepted these cash bribes:

• $1,000 paid by Candia at a Starbucks 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.

Candia, a critical witness, is expected to testify later this month.

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