A truce has been struck between the town of Miami Lakes and Mayor Michael Pizzi over his legal efforts to collect $2.25 million in attorneys’ fees and costs to defend himself against bribery charges.
Pizzi, who was acquitted in 2014 of accepting cash bribes in an FBI sting operation, has sought to collect that money in a lawsuit against the town since he was reinstated as mayor in April of last year.
But in a peaceful turn of events, Pizzi has put his suit against the town on hold for six months while his team of lawyers and the town’s attorneys attempt to negotiate a resolution with Miami Lakes’ insurance carrier. The town has a $5 million insurance policy that could be tapped to pay his high-profile defense lawyers, Ed Shohat and Ben Kuehne — but to date the carrier has refused to pay Pizzi’s huge legal bill, he said Wednesday.
“My goal is to resolve this without wasting any more taxpayer money,” said Pizzi, who is facing three opponents for mayor in the town’s November election. “If I have my way, the insurance company will pay for this, not the taxpayers.”
So far, the town council has spent $160,000 on attorneys’ fees in its legal fight with Pizzi over his demand to be paid for his criminal defense expenses. That excludes an additional $100,000 recently set aside by the council for that fight.
Town attorney Raul Gastesi agreed with Pizzi that saving taxpayer money and attaining the settlement with the town’s insurer are the twin objectives.
But Gastesi said the mayor’s strategy to pursue that settlement allows him to avoid sitting for a deposition in his temporarily halted legal dispute with the town. Gastesi said Pizzi has repeatedly resisted the deposition because the town’s lawyers want to ask him about his legal bills, which involved defending against allegations of criminal activity while he was serving as mayor in Miami Lakes and as city attorney in Medley in 2013.
“He has done everything in his power to avoid the taking of his deposition,” Gastesi said. “We want to know how much of his defense was relevant to Miami Lakes.”
In a related dispute, Miami Lakes and Pizzi’s lawyers reached a settlement in late 2015 regarding other legal fees and costs of his reinstatement as mayor.
The council, which was initially divided over his reinstatement, voted 4-3 to pay Pizzi’s legal team $460,000 at a special meeting in December. Pizzi cast the deciding vote.
Pizzi began vying for his reinstatement in August 2014, when he was acquitted on federal bribery charges. He ultimately sued the town in January 2015 and returned to office in April that year.
The money to cover the reinstatement case came from the town’s budget surplus for 2014-2015, in addition to the $250,000 the council set aside for this fiscal year.