Free on bail since his arrest last summer, prosecutors now say suspended Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi should go to jail before he faces federal trial on public corruption charges in less than a month.
Prosecutors have moved to revoke Pizzi's bond and detain him, claiming he violated the terms when he arranged to have a colleague send two email blasts about “corrupt” activity by other Miami Lakes officials to thousands of his supporters. Among the recipients: the town manager and other potential trial witnesses the former mayor was ordered not to contact by a federal magistrate judge.
Prosecutors made their move against Pizzi after they said he lied to the court’s probation office about his behind-the-scene’s role in sending the emails in April. Pizzi’s defense attorneys have called the prosecution’s actions “a shocking exercise of government overreaching” while trampling on his right to free speech. They have sought to dismiss his bribery indictment.
U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke has scheduled a hearing Wednesday to decide Pizzi's pre-trial fate. His trial starts July 8 with jury selection.
Pizzi’s first email, sent in early April, included references to Miami Lakes town manager Alex Rey in a “purported” press release made to look like it was issued by the Miami-Dade County Commission on Ethics and Public Trust, according to federal prosecutors. “The press release was misleading in that it improperly alleged that A.R. and his staff were engaged in corruption and awarding contracts illegally,” stated the prosecution’s motion to revoke Pizzi’s bond.
Rey, who received the email, is on the no-contact list because he is listed as a potential witness at Pizzi’s upcoming trial.
Pizzi said federal prosecutors and FBI agents have completely distorted his actions by implying he fabricated the press release cited in the email blasts to intimidate potential witnesses. He doesn’t dispute his role in sending them with the help of a public relations assistant.
His legal team called the prosecution’s strategy to revoke his $100,000 bond an “intrusion into Mr. Pizzi’s privacy and First Amendment rights,” defense attorneys Ed Shohat and Ben Kuehne wrote in a response to the government’s motion.
“Today the government seeks to punish Pizzi, who has scrupulously avoided any real contact with anyone on the no-contact list, for exercising his First Amendment right to expose corruption in the town of Miami Lakes,” they wrote Friday.
Pizzi’s first unsigned email refers to an actual decision in February by the county’s ethics commission that found Miami Lakes’ former public works director, Hiram Siaba, violated an ethics ordinance that bars public employees from doing business with former employers for a two-year period. In April, the Miami Herald published a story about the violation.
Siaba, who was hired by Rey in January 2011, awarded his former employer, Ballarena Construction Group, 10 projects that fell below the $25,000 threshold for doling out contracts without going to the town council for approval. Records show that Siaba agreed to settle the complaint that he violated the two-year rule, while the ethics commission advised Rey to be “more diligent in supervising” employees like Siaba to avoid this type of conflict.
Rey declined to comment about receiving Pizzi’s email citing the ethics violation.
Pizzi brought the violation to the attention of the county’s ethics commission early last year, long before he was arrested on bribery charges.
“It is appalling that the government would try to put me, or any other citizen, in jail for expressing their opinions in emails, blogs or in newspapers,” said Pizzi, 51, who was quoted in the Herald’s story on Siaba’s ethics violation. “I would give my life to defend my freedom of speech or that of anyone else. The government is putting people in jail for exposing corruption — very ironic.”
Pizzi, elected twice as Miami Lakes mayor, was arrested last August on charges of accepting thousands of dollars in bribes during an FBI sting operation in exchange for his political support of bogus federal grant applications.
Pizzi has pleaded not guilty to fraud charges, asserting that he received no illegal money from undercover FBI agents and a recently convicted lobbyist who flipped for the feds before Pizzi’s arrest. His total alleged take: $6,750.
Pizzi’s case, pitting his prominent defense team against seasoned prosecutors Jared Dwyer and Robert Senior, has heated up in the weeks before trial.
The prosecutors filed their motion to revoke Pizzi’s bond on Friday.
They noted Pizzi was warned back in February by the federal court’s probation office not to send out political email blasts to supporters, because a potential witness on the no-contact list received one. Pizzi assured probation officials that he would remove any no-contact witnesses from his email list of 3,000 names.
FBI agents recently learned that Pizzi arranged to have a colleague, identified as “Jacqueline Diaz” in court papers, send two email blasts about the ethics commission’s decision involving Miami Lakes’ former public works director. The emails, dated April 3 and April 8, showed they were sent from a laptop using an Internet Protocol address at a Starbucks cafe in Miami Lakes.
According to the FBI, the first email — titled “Probable Cause Found that Miami Lakes’ Town Manager’s Staff Broke the Law” — was sent to at least five people on Pizzi’s no-contact list, including Rey, the town manager.
Agents found out from the Starbucks surveillance video that Pizzi met with an unidentified female at the cafe on April 3. They visited her home last week. The woman said she was doing public relations work for Pizzi’s defense, that he directed her to send the two email blasts, according to prosecutors.
But Pizzi’s lawyers condemned the FBI’s tactics, saying they had no business meddling in the work of Jessica Fernandez, who was hired by the defense team in January. She said she has been paid $3,000 for her work. His attorneys accused the agents, along with prosecutors, of unlawfully making copies of certain files on her laptop’s hard drive, which they claimed contained privileged defense information.
Pizzi’s lawyers sought to dismiss the indictment on Monday, alleging “prosecutorial misconduct.”
“Apparently at the direction of prosecutors, four armed FBI agents ambushed Ms. Fernandez in her driveway as she arrived home from work,” wrote Shohat and Kuehne. “They flashed their badges and told her she needed to answer their questions.”
Miami Herald staff writer Joey Flechas contributed to this story.