Opa-locka, a little town best known for its minaret-bedecked city hall and outsized history of political scandals, has a new deputy city attorney with a colorful reputation of his own.
Michael Pizzi boasts extensive experience in municipal governance but also been a lightning rod for controversy of late. He defiantly fought and beat federal bribery charges last summer and has been embroiled ever since in a legal battle likely to soon win him back his most high-profile job — mayor of Miami Lakes.
In recent weeks, Pizzi has quietly assumed the dais at Opa-locka City Commission meetings, where he is tasked with writing contracts and drafting legislation.
City commissioners have expressed no issues about employing Pizzi. It’s not unusual for low-paid elected officials in small towns to have an outside job and Pizzi, who collects $18,000 yearly salary for being a mayor, previously served as city attorney for the town of Medley.
Said Opa-locka Vice Mayor Timothy Holmes: “If he does a good job for the city, I don’t have a problem with it.”
But his new gig has nonetheless sparked some curiosity. E-mails show he landed it after a city commissioner he represented initiated both the firing of the previous city attorney and the hiring of the new one, who in turn employed Pizzi — a business arrangement that effectively shields his salary from the public.
Pizzi also had represented two garbage firms that landed contracts with the city, one of which recently filed for bankruptcy.
Patricia Ellis, a town attorney in the late 1990s and vocal watchdog of city government, believes Pizzi’s tangled relationships raise too many questions.
“If he holds a city title, then there should be no secrets regarding his pay and his arrangements with the city attorney,” Ellis said. “I expressed my concerns to the mayor and others that Mr. Pizzi should not be seated up there.”
Pizzi and his employer, newly hired City Attorney Vincent Brown, insist there are no conflicts and he was hired for his legal acumen.
“My desire is to do my job and to bring in people who can assist me with that,” Brown said. “I brought somebody on who is capable of doing that. He has vast experience at local government law.”
Pizzi, in numerous e-mails and phone calls to Herald reporters and editors over the last week, argued that his hiring did not merit a story.
He said Opa-Locka will get a lot of legal bang for its bucks, though neither he not Brown would reveal how much money he is getting paid under his 20-hour-a-week contract with Brown’s firm. Pizzi and Brown say that is common practice for consulting legal firms hired by cities.
“Getting someone with my experience to help Mr. Brown is a bargain for the city and it’s good for the residents,’’ said Pizzi, who in an email said he has helped get eight months of legal work done in a few weeks. “As long as I get enough money to have a burger, some fries, and a beer on Friday, I’m the happiest man on the planet.”
Last month, the commission agreed to pay Brown’s firm $264,000 each year for two years. Opa-locka did not respond to a public records request for invoices from Brown that might provide more detail of compensation to the city’s new deputy attorney. Pizzi insists that as a private employee, he is not allowed to disclose his salary.
Tony Alfieri, director of the University of Miami’s Center for Ethics and Public Service, said such a contracting arrangement might not break any rules but could give taxpayers pause.
“Public accountability encourages officials in his position to practice transparency and full disclosure, so that the people of Opa-locka understand that he is being appropriately compensated for doing the work of the citizens,” Alfieri said.
As as attorney and activist, Pizzi has long been been an outspoken champion of populist issues, taking on rock miners, county government spending and leading a successful recall of once-powerful Miami-Dade Commissioner Natacha Seijas.
But he’s courted controversy as a mayor. In 2010, Miami-Dade police caught him on hidden tape threatening a political rival. Nothing ever happened, police dropped the case and Pizzi dismissed the tapes as “meaningless, over the top, silly, ridiculous drinking talk.”
Then in August 2013, federal agents arrested him and accused him of accepted over $6,000 in bribes.
But one year later, Pizzi triumphed at trial after his attorneys ripped FBI tactics and now, after months of legal fights, a judge in March ruled Pizzi should be returned to office on April 30, though an appeal is pending.
Over the years, Pizzi worked for community groups in Opa-locka. As for his new job there, Pizzi landed it only weeks after he was negotiating a contract with the city on behalf of a garbage collection company – at the same time the city was paying him to represent Opa-locka commissioner Terence Pinder in an unrelated legal issue.
Pizzi insists there was no conflict. His work for Pinder was public knowledge and had been cleared by the previous city attorney, he said. His representation for two city vendors also was fully disclosed, he said.
In 2013, Pizzi represented Ecological Paper Recycling, Opa-locka’s controversial hire to pick up its town’s garbage. The company that held the previous contract, Progressive Waste, unsuccessfully sued, claiming the bid process was tainted. Ecological has since filed for bankruptcy and Pizzi no longer works for the company.
Pizzi later represented Universal Waste Services, which assumed the garbage contract when Ecological went belly-up. Up until at least late January, he was negotiating the company’s contract with the city.
That’s also when the city approved $5,000 for Pinder to hire Pizzi in fighting the federal government, which had barred the commissioner from voting on issues dealing with some types of funding because of an earlier arrest in a corruption case, a prosecution for which he served probation.
Pizzi won the case for the commissioner. He said did the work at a steeply discount price. He also said he dropped Universal as a client after joining Brown’s firm to represent the city, and has recused himself from any work on the issues.
“I did not see a conflict,’’ he said. “I don’t represent anyone who has an issue in the city of Opa-locka – only the taxpayers.”
Records show Pinder himself paved the way for his lawyer’s new gig. E-mails show that in late January, Pizzi got into a dispute with attorney John Dellagloria, who at the time was working for Opa-locka through law firm Greenspoon Marder, over issuance of the check to represent Pinder.
Dellagloria told the Miami Herald that after the dispute arose, Pinder demanded that he draft paperwork terminating the city’s contract with the law firm. Weeks later, the city officially cut ties with the firm. Pinder himself sponsored the resolution hiring Brown.
In an interview with The Herald, Pinder insisted that his push for a new city attorney had nothing to do with Pizzi.
“We had some issues on backlogged cases and things that needed to be done in the city,” Pinder said. “It was a board decision that we needed to move forward in acquiring other legal representation."
Dellagloria said he believes Pinder was long disgruntled with his firm for reasons “that had nothing to do with the services the firm provided.”
“And it was no surprise that Pinder’s personal attorney – who worked feverishly to secure a good deal for his other client from the city just days earlier – wound up representing the city,” he said.