Acquitted Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi said he could no longer wait for Gov. Rick Scott to revoke his suspension, so on Thursday he sued the governor in a bid to reclaim the mayor’s office.
The legal showdown before the Florida Supreme Court was perhaps inevitable after the governor refused to rescind Pizzi’s suspension after he beat federal bribery charges a week ago. His unprecedented suit, filed in Tallahassee, urges the high court to order the governor to revoke the suspension under the state Constitution.
“This is not about Mayor Michael Pizzi,” the two-term mayor told reporters at a law office in downtown Miami. “It’s about respecting democracy ... and it’s about respecting the Florida Constitution and the rule of law and the fact that no man, whether you’re the governor or the president, is above from the law.”
Under state law, Pizzi and his legal team assert he was automatically entitled to regain his job immediately after a 12-person jury found him not guilty in Miami federal court last Thursday. They argued that the same law that Scott invoked to suspend Pizzi after his arrest last August required the governor to reinstate him after he beat the criminal charges — a position that Scott ignored.
Pizzi’s team, including criminal defense attorneys Ben Kuehne and Ed Shohat, said the governor was flouting the law.
“We have given Gov. Scott one week, we have contacted his office every day,” Kuehne told reporters. “The governor refuses to follow the law, refuses to implement the constitution. He is abdicating his constitutional responsibilities.”
The governor’s office issued a statement on Thursday saying Scott’s decision “was rendered in consultation” with Miami Lakes officials after reviewing their town charter. “The courts will ultimately decide the issue,” the statement said.
Last Friday, Scott’s general counsel issued a letter saying the town charter allowed for a special mayoral election and that Pizzi’s elected replacement, Wayne Slaton, could serve the remainder of his term until 2016.
Slaton, who was trounced by Pizzi in the 2012 mayoral election, has refused to leave office after serving less than a year during Pizzi’s suspension. That decision provoked Pizzi to hold a press conference earlier this week at town hall where he insisted he should be the mayor, not Slaton.
That chaos gave way to Thursday’s lawsuit.
Since Pizzi’s acquittal, Scott has flatly rejected reinstating Pizzi, saying at a recent gubernatorial campaign stop in Homestead: “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.”
Slaton’s response: “I have no intention of resigning. I am not going anywhere. I am completely committed to the residents of Miami Lakes.”
Pizzi's attorneys argue 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.
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.
Last week, Pizzi’s attorney, Kuehne, emailed Scott's general counsel, Peter Antonacci, asking the governor to revoke Pizzi's suspension, citing state law. Antonacci responded last 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.
He ended by saying the matter regards “a local issue and the governor has no further role.”