On a mid-December day, lobbyist Richard Candia says he first looked for Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi at town hall, then at a nearby field before finally catching up with him at a local Starbuck’s.
They agreed to meet there, Candia claims, so that he could give the mayor a $1,000 cash bribe.
“I removed the envelope from my coat pocket,” Candia testified at Pizzi's federal bribery trial last week. “I put the envelope on top of the newspaper [on the table]. He put another newspaper over it and he walked away.”
The lobbyist further testified he dropped off his 14-year-old son at a nearby “comic book store” before conducting the transaction.
But Pizzi’s defense team countered the now-convicted Candia, a star witness for the prosecution who will wrap up his testmony Monday, lied about giving the money to the mayor on Dec. 14, 2012. They say he fabricated the whole tale to curry favor with prosecutors in the hope of reducing his prison sentence.
Pizzi’s lead attorney, Ed Shohat, accused Candia of making “false statements” to prosecutors, the grand jury and to the 12-person trial jury during his testimony on the alleged bribe and other key issues.
Pizzi’s trial before U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke in Miami federal court is expected to end in mid-August.
Candia was an unwitting target of an FBI sting operation aimed at the Miami Lakes mayor. After agents confronted him last summer, the lobbyist assisted in the undercover probe of Pizzi, who was arrested a year ago.
Pizzi, 51, is charged with accepting $6,750 in illegal checks and cash from two undercover FBI agents posing as sleazy Chicago businessmen who owned a grant-writing company, Sunshine Universal.
Prosecutors say that in exchange for the bribes, the agents talked him into officially supporting the company’s “bogus” federal grant applications in Miami Lakes and Medley, where Pizzi worked as the town attorney.
Throughout the trial in July, Candia has been described as either a “bagman” or a “liar,” depending on which side is arguing. The 49-year-old Candia, who admitted that he became a crook because he was desperate for money, testified about his role in introducing the undercover agents to Pizzi in September 2011 — for which he received a $500 payment.
Candia testified that he gave the $1,000 bribe to Pizzi in December 2012, arranged another $2,000 payoff at a Miami Lakes billiard club in Feburary 2013 and, after he flipped for the feds, gave the mayor a final $3,000 bribe in a storage closet at Medley Town Hall in July of last year.
Pizzi’s defense team claims the mayor never received the $1,000; accepted the $2,000 in a cigar bag but gave it away without realizing the money was stuffed inside; and took the $3,000 as a reimbursement for a personal expense on behalf of a Miami Lakes political action committee.
Pizzi’s defense strategy has been to raise critical doubts about his accepting the bribes in return for political favors. It has also aimed to discredit Candia and the lead FBI undercover agent. Both admitted on the witness stand that the mayor had not been involved in any actual corrupt activity before the undercover operation was launched against Pizzi and numerous other South Florida mayors and officials in 2011.
The sting operation originated when the FBI retained a Miami-Dade lobbyist, Michael Kesti — code name “Stingray” — as an informant. Kesti directed them to Candia, who was close to Pizzi and other small-town mayors.
Last week, Candia testified in detail about his role in the three alleged bribes. The lobbyist said that Pizzi, after getting “spooked” when the undercover agents described the federal grant program as a “money grab” in February 2012, agreed to reconnect with them after his re-election victory that November.
Candia, who had raised thousands of dollars for Pizzi’s campaign through the lobbyist’s own political action committee, testified that the mayor approached him about getting involved again in the grant program.
“Mr. Pizzi brought it up with me,” Candia testified.
That led to a dinner at Shula’s steakhouse on Dec. 13, 2012, where Candia, Kesti, the FBI informant, the undercover agents and Pizzi discussed the federal grant scheme. It was pitched as a no-cost way for municipalities to obtain government funds for a jobs study and economic development.
At dinner, Pizzi told the lobbyist and the undercover agents posing as the Chicago businessmen that he wanted them to donate money to his upcoming Christmas toy drive that weekend. FBI recordings of the meal revealed that they did not take the mayor seriously.
Later that night at the nearby billiard club, Pizzi told Candia that he wanted $1,000. And the lobbyist relayed that message to the undercover agents.
Candia told them that Pizzi wanted the money to “buy toys for kids,” according to the undercover recordings.
Pizzi’s attorney, Shohat, confronted the lobbyist about his statement on the tape, saying it showed that the mayor did not want anything for himself.
Although Candia admitted saying that, he testified he meant it “sarcastically.”
The next day, Candia, still a target of the probe, met with the undercover agents at a Holiday Inn in Miami Lakes. They gave him 10 $100 bills in a white envelope to give to Pizzi, the lobbyist testified. He also said they gave him an endorsement letter for the federal grant application in Medley, so Pizzi could sign it.
According to the undercover recordings, Candia later spoke with the FBI informant, Kesti, who asked: “Was [Pizzi] happy with the, uh, the gift?”
Candia’s response: “Abso-, absolutely.”