A once-powerful Miami-Dade politician, Manuel Maroño, fell hard last week when he was sentenced to more than three years in prison for taking bribes as the mayor of Sweetwater.
Another small-town mayor swept up in an identical FBI sting operation has no intention of going down the same way.
Instead, Michael Pizzi, the suspended mayor of Miami Lakes, says he can’t wait to fight the feds at trial in May. Pizzi, a practicing lawyer and famously outspoken politician, has repeatedly proclaimed his innocence from day one.
“I’m a community guy,” Pizzi, 51, insisted in an interview with the Miami Herald last week. “I’ve never accepted any money from anyone in exchange for doing political favors — ever.”
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There is no question that the U.S. attorney’s corruption case against Pizzi will prove tougher to make than the prosecution of Maroño. The longtime Sweetwater mayor pleaded guilty so fast because he incriminated himself on FBI undercover recordings — tapes that confirmed practically every bribe that he grabbed in a government grant scheme.
Like Maroño, Pizzi is accused of accepting thousands of dollars in kickbacks from undercover agents posing as sleazy Chicago businessmen in exchange for supporting sham federal grant applications. But the available records and evidence in both cases suggest Pizzi’s alleged criminal role in the two-year FBI sting operation is much murkier.
In August, Pizzi was arrested on charges of accepting a total of $6,750 in bribes as a quid pro quo for using his official positions as Miami Lakes mayor and Medley’s town attorney to back “bogus” grant applications for economic development that prosecutors say were only meant to enrich him and others.
In his defense, Pizzi points to one audio recording summarized in his criminal complaint — a turning point in the FBI probe of the two-term mayor. The tape, recorded on July 1 of last year, reveals that Pizzi accepted $3,000 from a Miami-Dade lobbyist, Richard Candia, who had agreed to help FBI agents when they confronted him a week earlier.
After agreeing to cooperate, the lobbyist told FBI agents that Pizzi had wanted a campaign donation from the “Chicago guys” — or another possible contributor — for a local political action committee that supported his goals in Miami Lakes.
According to partial transcripts filed in the case, Candia told Pizzi that he would try to get the donation from “our guys,” saying they wanted him to write a letter endorsing their Chicago consulting company to help land a federal grant for Miami Lakes.
But Pizzi, in the transcripts, doesn’t clearly agree to any terms, telling the lobbyist that any PAC donation “has nothing to do with" the grant deal being pushed by the Chicago guys.
At one point, Pizzi said he needed the donation as a reimbursement for $3,000 that he had already personally spent on campaign costs for the Miami Lakes PAC. He told Candia to sit tight while he looked into the issue.
But rather than wait, Candia unexpectedly showed up on that early July day at Medley Town Hall, where Pizzi worked as the town attorney. He handed Pizzi an envelope stuffed with $3,000 — supplied by the FBI — in a meeting between the two men held in the closet of Pizzi’s office at Medley Town Hall.
“That’s three,” Candia told him.
“OK,” Pizzi answered. “You did good.”
An indictment accuses Pizzi of accepting that cash as a bribe for supporting the sham federal grant application for his town, an allegation that the former two-term mayor strongly denies. Pizzi asserts it was a campaign donation to reimburse his out-of-pocket expenses for the Miami Lakes PAC.
“I didn’t take a bribe,” he said flatly.
Bolstering that argument are documents, obtained by the Miami Herald, showing that Pizzi spent thousands of dollars of his own money to pay for some of the Miami Lakes PAC’s campaign costs last year.
Pizzi wrote a personal check for exactly $3,000 to a PAC campaign worker on June 24 — one week before the mayor would receive the alleged bribe from the lobbyist. The memo field says the check was for “office work.” The Herald has obtained a copy of the check.
The campaign worker, Donald Alvarado, confirmed this past week that the mayor wrote that check to him on Pizzi's Wachovia bank account because the PAC, Miami Lakes Voters for Good Government, did not have enough funds to pay him.
“I received that check for distributing fliers,” Alvarado told the Herald. “I did a lot of work for the PAC.”
Miami Lakes Voters for Good Government was established in March 2012 to support local candidates, including Pizzi. It was also created to collect money for a Miami Lakes charter change that would have made all town council seats at-large, eliminating single districts. The measure prevailed in July of last year.
Although Pizzi is not listed on the filing documents, he campaigned in support of at-large seats and searched for contributions to the PAC.
A potential hurdle for Pizzi, however, is that the $3,000 check made out to Alvarado does not appear on any PAC campaign finance reports filed through last year with the Miami-Dade Elections Department. Nor do those reports show any PAC loan by Pizzi in that amount. There are no limits on donations to local political action committees, but they must be submitted as checks.
A campaign finance report shows the Miami Lakes PAC previously paid $3,000 to Alvarado on June 7, 2013, for “canvassing” before a referendum on electing town council members. Alvarado confirmed receiving that previous check, too.
The PAC’s chairman and treasurer, McHenry Hamilton, declined to comment on why the committee’s campaign finance reports do not show Pizzi’s check payment to Alvarado.
“Obviously, I can’t comment,” said Hamilton, a Miami CPA, pointing out that he will likely be a government witness at Pizzi’s trial. “The feds have told me not to talk about the case with anyone. I’m sort of under a gag order here.”
Arrested and Charged
In August, Pizzi was arrested on charges of conspiring to commit extortion with Candia, the lobbyist, and accepting bribes. Candia, 49, was charged with the same offense in a separate criminal complaint accusing Maroño, 42, and lobbyist Jorge Forte, 42, of receiving kickbacks. Both mayors were suspended from office by Gov. Rick Scott.
Candia has pleaded not guilty, but he is cooperating with federal prosecutors and is expected to change his plea before testifying at Pizzi’s trial.
Candia, once a registered Miami Lakes lobbyist, was paid $500 by the FBI undercover agents to introduce them and their informant to Pizzi, according to a criminal complaint. Candia also is accused of receiving $5,000 in kickbacks for helping with the Sweetwater grant deals.
In November, Maroño and Forte pleaded guilty to an honest-services fraud conspiracy charge. The former Sweetwater mayor was sentenced to three years and four months in prison Thursday and must surrender at the end of March. Forte is awaiting sentencing in February.
Maroño worked with both lobbyists to break the law. Maroño and Forte accepted $40,000 in bribes for their parts in the federal grant scheme. Both received an additional $20,000 for making introductions to other public officials on behalf of the two undercover FBI agents, who posed as operators of a Chicago grant-writing business, Sunshine Universal, in the sting operation.
Maroño used his contacts as president of the League of Cities in 2012 to promote the grant scheme in Pembroke Pines, Hialeah Gardens and other communities.
The agents pretended to boast about their access to an actual federal agency, AmeriCorps, which doles out grant money to communities to stimulate job growth. To lure Maroño and Forte, the agents told both that Sunshine Universal needed their support for a $200,000 federal grant to do an assessment of economic activity in Sweetwater, and that another $1.2 million grant for the city would be in store.
The two FBI undercover agents, using their paid informant, South Miami-Dade lobbyist Michael Kesti, made the same moves on Pizzi with the goal of gaining his support for similar grant schemes in Medley and Miami Lakes.
But Pizzi’s case presents more of a challenge for prosecutors to prove his intent because it’s not as straightforward as the evidence against the ex-Sweetwater mayor. Several of Pizzi’s conversations with his co-defendant, Candia, weren’t recorded. And another key witness, Kesti, isn’t going to appear in court to corroborate his part in the alleged grant schemes.
According to the criminal complaint and the indictment, Kesti gave Pizzi three checks for his 2012 mayoral reelection campaign in exchange for his support of a $50,000 federal grant application to do an “underemployment evaluation” in Medley, a town of only 1,050 residents.
Pizzi's 2012 mayoral campaign report shows he accepted three checks hand-delivered by Kesti that totaled $750. They were donated by two Chicago consultants and a businessman named “Steve Phillips.” In reality, all three donors were fictitious creations of the two-year FBI undercover operation.
But federal prosecutors Jared Dwyer and Robert Senior said at a federal court hearing in mid-January that they will not call Kesti as a witness or ask the jury to accept any of his statements as true because he was playing a fictitious role in the FBI sting.
Moreover, the prosecutors said they would not disclose to Pizzi’s defense attorneys, Ben Kuehne and Ed Shohat, how much the FBI paid Kesti as an informant — a figure that both lawyers insisted the prosecution should turn over as evidence.
They declined to discuss the matter but said they consider the FBI’s payments to Kesti of great importance. The U.S. attorney’s office also declined to comment.
But Kesti was not directly involved in giving Pizzi three other alleged payments, totaling $6,000 in cash. All three were allegedly made after Pizzi was reelected as Miami Lakes mayor in May 2012.
Pizzi is accused of accepting $1,000 in cash in December 2012 from Candia in exchange for persuading the Medley Town Council to back a purported $50,000 federal grant application for a jobs study.
The following February, Pizzi is accused of taking $2,000 cash — along with two cigars — from the FBI undercover agents at a billiard club in Miami Lakes. The alleged payoff was for supporting his hometown’s federal grant request.
Pizzi’s criminal complaint does not reflect that he acknowledged ever receiving those alleged bribes.
But he did acknowledge receiving the $3,000 payment from Candia in a Medley Town Hall office closet in July, according to the complaint.
In an interview, Pizzi said he always believed the federal grant applications were legitimate, and that he supported the deals politically because there was no downside risk for Medley or Miami Lakes.
Pizzi said that early on in the FBI investigation, he made it clear that both towns would not have to pay any administrative costs for the grants and that any future federal dollars for job growth would be good for residents.
Pizzi pointed to a conversation recorded Feb. 29, 2012, of a meeting at a Miami Beach restaurant — before any alleged payments had been made. Pizzi met with the two FBI undercover agents and their informant, Kesti, to discuss the grant deals.
“I just want to be clear with you, mayor, so that there are not any hard feelings down the road,” one agent told him over steaks and drinks at Smith & Wollensky. “But, you understand, a lot of this s*** is just bogus. What we are doing here is just grabbing money.”
“I can’t do it if it’s just bogus,” Pizzi said. “That I can’t do.”
A moment later, the mayor said: “I just wanna do the right thing by the city and make sure that this actually works.”