A year and one week from the day that he sat in the back of an FBI vehicle, handcuffed and under arrest on federal bribery charges, Michael Pizzi exited the Federal Courthouse in downtown Miami last week in an entirely different frame of mind.
Pizzi, who was forced to resign his post as Medley town attorney along with being removed as Miami Lakes mayor by Governor Rick Scott shortly after the arrest, exited the courthouse wildly fist-pumping into the air. Minutes earlier, a jury had come back from two days of deliberations and gave him and his defense team the news they wanted to hear: “not guilty on all charges.”
On Aug. 6, 2013, Pizzi found himself escorted from Miami Lakes Town Hall in handcuffs and transported to the Broward County Federal Courthouse. He, along with Sweetwater mayor Manny Moroño, had been charged with taking bribes and kickbacks after applying for a fake grantwriting scheme that had turned out to be an undercover FBI sting operation.
The Gazette reached Pizzi on Monday morning and he spent nearly 30 minutes talking about his unforgettable ordeal.
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“I felt like in a matter of just a few seconds when the verdict was read that I had gotten my life and my reputation back in one fell swoop,” Pizzi said when asked about his instant reaction to the verdict being read. “I’ve been on Cloud Nine ever since.”
Last summer, Pizzi was caught up in an elaborate scheme engineered 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.
While Moroño eventually would cut a deal with the feds, Pizzi and his legal defense team led by Ed Shohat and Ben Kuehne never wavered in claiming their client’s innocence and took things all the way to trial.
And this despite the fact that federal prosecutors have somewhere in the general area of a 93 percent success rate of either convictions or plea deals (according to the the U.S. Attorneys’ Annual Statistical Report). In other words, Pizzi and his team had about a 7 percent chance of “walking,” which is exactly what happened.
“Two things,” Pizzi said when asked at what point he started feeling confident that he would be found not guilty. “One, I always knew these allegations were a complete and total fabrication and totally ridiculous because when Richard Candia (one of two lobbyists involved in the scheme) took the stand, he testified on cross examination and admitted under oath that he completely made up and fabricated many of the allegations he had made about me to prosecutors and the grand jury.
“The second thing was when the (FBI) agents admitted on the witness stand that after all of their investigation of me there was no reason for them to suspect that I was corrupt and had no information that I had ever done anything illegal in my entire life.”
As far as how things ended with Medley town officials after he served as their town attorney for just shy of two years but was forced to resign his post under a settlement agreement with the town two weeks after his arrest, Pizzi had plenty to say. Some of it was negative but some of it was positive as well.
“Medley is a small town and I still consider Mayor (Roberto) Martell one of my best friends and the council staff to be part of my family,” said Pizzi. “As the town’s attorney, I didn’t just feel like a lawyer, I felt like everybody on council, staff, police that they were part of the Pizzi family. I really loved them all and thought they loved me back. But worse than the arrest and worse than everything that happened to me, losing contact with all of my friends, including all the people in Medley, who I really cared about so much, and not being able to communicate with them, it made me feel somewhat isolated and abandoned. Very, very lonely. It crushed me.”
But Pizzi said that the day he was exonerated was the day Medley was as well.
“The one thing I’m happy for is Medley because when this happened, it hurt the town’s reputation as well,” said Pizzi. “And I think not only did I get exonerated but the entire town of Medley got exonerated as well.
“The town passed a resolution that the lobbyist was legitimate, right? All I did was go out and do what I was paid to do. A half-dozen other cities passed the same resolution. This guy (Richard) Candia came to the town and said if you pass this resolution, Medley could wind up getting $2 million in grant money and not cost you anything. Medley would have been stupid not to take a shot at it. No downside to it. And here I got caught up in this just because I was doing my job in the best interest of the city. A half-dozen other cities passed the same resolution and nobody got arrested for anything. Why would anybody turn that down? It could have helped Medley with so many projects.”
But while he admitted that having so many, including Medley town officials, “rush to judgement” and create distance between them and him, he understood the situation as well.
“The way Medley reacted was perfectly understandable under the circumstances,” said Pizzi. “Between the negative publicity, the FBI, I think that Medley did what it had to do. They weren’t the ones that arrested me and, to be honest, if I was in their shoes, I probably would have done exactly what the mayor and council did. They didn’t have a choice. But now that I’ve been exonerated, I’d like to go back to having a great relationship with the Medley folks.”
Despite being found not guilty and “getting his life back,” Pizzi said he is still faced with the daunting task of trying to repair a very tarnished reputation in addition to climbing out of a very big and deep financial hole.
“I guess the old adage ‘innocent until proven guilty’ didn’t necessarily apply here,” said Pizzi. “In this case, in many ways, I was treated as if I was guilty and I had to prove my innocence. I lost my job over this before I was proven guilty of anything. How would anybody feel if they lost their job and career based upon a false allegation before they even got a chance to exonerate themselves? Here I am, right now, I’m innocent. The jury found that the allegations against me were false. I didn’t do anything wrong but here I am still out of a job.”
While he technically was never disbarred pending the outcome of the trial, Pizzi admitted he will still need to work hard to rebuild his practice based on all of the negative publicity.
Never one to shy away from controversy, Pizzi immediately became embroiled in another one when he went marching right into Miami Lakes Town Hall just hours after his acquittal to put his name tag back up on the dais as the town’s mayor.
The assumption was that Scott, in much the same way he had taken very little time in suspending Pizzi from office after the arrest, would do the same as far as reinstatement was concerned after the acquittal.
But Scott did no such thing, instead opting to allow Wayne Slaton to remain in office based loosely on Miami Lakes’ town charter that allows for anyone to remain in their seat once they’ve been elected there past six months.
Suffice to say, Pizzi and his “Dream Team” are already posturing stating that if the governor does not act on their behalf, they will go back to court to persuade a judge to either force Scott’s hand, or override the decision not to revoke the suspension.
Asked if he would reach out to Martell or the Town of Medley to inquire about the possibility of getting his old job back, one that paid $192,000 annually, Pizzi did not dismiss it but clearly understood that these circumstances, in which he resigned his post, are different from Miami Lakes, where he was forcefully removed.
“Something like that is still five steps ahead,” said Pizzi. “Right now I’m still on Cloud Nine over the verdict. But regardless of what role it’s in, I would hope everyone in Medley would welcome me back to their family with open arms and give me a big hug. I understand they’ve moved on but I still consider them my family and look forward to having a great relationship with them, whether it’s as town attorney or just good friend.”
Multiple attempts to reach Medley Mayor Roberto Martell for this story went unanswered.