Fresh from a big victory in federal court, where he was acquitted of corruption charges, Michael Pizzi plans to head back to court for a new battle: The governor is refusing to reinstate Pizzi as mayor of Miami Lakes in apparent defiance of state law.
Gov. Rick Scott’s unexpected move has created a constitutional crisis in the small Northwest Miami-Dade hamlet, leaving two men claiming they are the town’s mayor, and workers stripping both men’s photos from the walls of Town Hall.
The face-off between Michael Pizzi and Wayne Slaton — who was elected mayor after the governor suspended Pizzi when he was first charged — began Thursday night after a Scott staffer said his boss had no intention of reinstating Pizzi, even after a federal jury cleared Pizzi of seven corruption counts.
Scott reiterated the statement Friday morning during a campaign stop in Homestead, and Slaton said he has no intention of leaving.
Scott began the day saying he would not reinstate Pizzi because, “They have a mayor now. They had an election.”
Pizzi’s response: “Let me be clear, under Florida law I am the mayor of Miami Lakes right now,” — to which Slaton replied: “I have no intention of resigning. I am not going anywhere. I am completely committed to the residents of Miami Lakes.”
Pizzi’s attorneys point out that Florida law is clear: If an elected municipal leader is cleared of charges, “then the Governor shall forthwith revoke the suspension and restore such municipal official to office.”
The statute goes on to say the official should also collect back pay and other benefits.
The statement by Scott caught Miami Lakes administrators, who are now supporting the governor’s position, off guard. As Pizzi raced to Town Hall for the first time in a year after Thursday night’s verdict, his pictures were placed back on the Town Hall wall, his nameplate back on the dais in front of his seat.
By early Friday afternoon, workers had stripped the photos of both men from the wall.
While town administrators discussed the issue Friday morning, few people roamed Town Hall’s corridors other than Councilman Nelson Rodriguez, who said he was there to make certain town business ran smoothly.
“Whoever the mayor is … we have to work with them to keep this town moving,” Rodriguez said. “This is budget season.”
Scott’s position is dramatically at odds with the decision he made in August 2011, when he quickly revoked the suspension of Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones.
The commissioner had been suspended by Gov. Charlie Crist two years earlier after she was charged with corruption, and someone else was elected to her seat. Immediately after Spence-Jones was cleared, Scott issued an executive order clearing her to return. She came back, filled out her term, and collected more than $200,000 in back pay and benefits.
The charters of both Miami and Miami Lakes are similar. They both say if an elected official leaves office for more than six months, a special election must be held to occupy the seat. And both charters are quiet when it comes to reinstating an officer who has been cleared or acquitted of criminal charges and has been absent more than six months.
On Thursday, Pizzi attorney Ben Kuehne emailed Scott’s general counsel, Peter Antonacci, asking the governor to revoke Pizzi’s suspension, citing state law.
Antonacci responded Friday, citing the Miami Lakes charter section that calls for a special election if the mayor is absent for more than six months.
“After reviewing the Miami Lakes Town Charter, and in consultation with the Miami Lakes town attorney, it has been determined that Mayor Slaton was not elected only to fill Pizzi’s seat temporarily until the felony charges against Pizzi were resolved. Rather, Mayor Slaton was elected to serve out the term of office as Pizzi’s replacement,” Antonacci wrote.
Pizzi’s attorney said if the governor doesn’t act, they will go back to court to convince a judge to either force Scott’s hand, or override the decision not to revoke the suspension. The suspended mayor promised not to show up at Town Hall and create a scene as the debate plays out.
“It’s not in the public’s interest,” Pizzi said.
Miami Lakes town attorney Raul Gastesi said the city agrees with the governor’s interpretation.
At the time of Pizzi’s arrest, Miami Lakes made it clear that he would return as mayor if he were acquitted or the charges against him were dropped. In a special meeting on Aug. 8, 2013, then-Town Attorney Steve Geller warned council members that if they were to run for Pizzi’s seat and win, they might lose it later.
“I would remind you that if you have three years remaining on your seat and you give your seat to run for the position of mayor, and Mayor Pizzi ends up being found not guilty, or charges [are] dropped or anything, then you lose the seat,” he said. “If you have been elected to mayor, you lose that seat because he would automatically get it back, and you would not get back your old commission seat.”
Refusing to allow Pizzi back into office could create a bad precedent, said Dennis Bedard, who represented Spence-Jones in her effort to regain her office.
Bedard said if the governor’s decision stands, a prosecutor could charge an elected official and practically guarantee that the person would never be able to return to office, guilty or not.
“It’s got to be treated as if the special election never happened,” Bedard said. “It’s a good way to knock out somebody’s career completely.”
Bedard and others couldn’t think of a statewide precedent for Scott’s stance.
Last summer Pizzi was caught up in an elaborate scheme concocted by federal investigators who posed as crooked Chicago businessmen looking to pay off elected officials in exchange for their support of lucrative federal grants.
Pizzi was eventually charged with accepting $6,750 in illegal payments. Scott removed him from office in August. On Thursday, jurors cleared Pizzi of all seven counts.
Slaton, who was elected as the town’s first mayor in 2001, served two terms until 2008 before returning to private practice.
Pizzi won the mayor’s seat in 2008, after serving as a council member.
In 2012, he trounced Slaton during another mayoral election by more than a 2-1 margin. Slaton again reclaimed the seat last September, winning a special election after Scott removed Pizzi from office.
Miami Herald reporters David Ovalle and Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.