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Pizzi pulled strings for feds’ ‘sting’ company

Sitting in a Miami Lakes council meeting, citizens wouldn’t know that Mayor Michael Pizzi was the force behind a proposed contract to land the town grant money.

But a criminal complaint against the now-suspended mayor charges that Pizzi pulled strings to get the proposal passed by the town council in exchange for kickbacks from the company behind the contract.

Only, it turns out, the company was fictitious, set up by FBI agents to snag the mayor on bribery charges. Pizzi was arrested Tuesday along with Sweetwater Mayor Manuel Maroño on federal bribery charges.

The complaint, public records and interviews with Miami Lakes officials detail the operation:

A recommendation to contract with Sunshine Universal, the fictitious company the FBI set up for the sting, first appeared on a Miami Lakes council agenda in March 2013. Even though the item was sponsored by Councilman Tony Lama, it was Pizzi who made sure it made it onto the agenda, according to the criminal complaint.

Pizzi had directed lobbyist Richard Candia, also arrested Tuesday, to meet with Lama. Candia met with Lama on Feb. 27 to pitch the Sunshine Universal contract. Also at the meeting: undercover FBI agents and an FBI “source.’’

Candia made the pitch, but Lama “was not informed the substantial majority of the money would be used to compensate the participants or that kickbacks were available,” the complaint said.

Before the council could vote on Lama’s proposal, Pizzi maneuvered to have it removed from the agenda. He had noticed how Lama had requested more information about the company, according to the complaint.

Lama said in a telephone interview Wednesday that Candia told him to place the item on the back burner because the federal sequester had impacted Sunshine Universal.

“I expect my colleagues will behave in a manner that is ethical and in best interest of our community,” Lama said. “Allegedly, that was not the fact.”

Sometime this spring, Ceasar Mestre, who was the town’s vice mayor at the time, got a call from the mayor, Mestre said Wednesday. Pizzi had asked Mestre to reach out to Candia. The lobbyist had a “good idea” regarding economic development in the town, Mestre recalled the mayor saying.

Mestre said he spoke with with Candia, who convinced him to put a resolution on the May council agenda to negotiate a contract with Sunshine Universal. The deal, as Candia pitched it, would allow Sunshine to apply for federal grants on behalf of Miami Lakes — at no cost to the town.

Mestre said he scoured the web for information about the company, but came up with nothing. So, Mestre said he called Candia to ask why the company didn’t have a website or any kind of online presence.

“He said it wasn’t a Florida company and they do business in different states, and because they deal with federal grants they fly under the radar,” Mestre said.

“I thought it was strange but I trusted Mr. Candia. And I especially trusted his partner Jose Fuentes. We went to undergrad together. We were friends for 30 years,” said Mestre, who went to St. Thomas University with Fuentes, who has not been charged.

Mestre said he was told that other cities such as Sweetwater had worked with Sunshine. He was sold.

Mestre presented the item to council members on May 14. The item passed unanimously. The only comment came from Pizzi, who told the council that the contract “doesn’t cost the town a penny no matter what,” according to the city’s recording of the meeting.

Town Attorney Joseph Geller said Wednesday the contract went nowhere after council members passed the resolution.

“We found that they were not authorized to do business in the state of Florida...based on that, I didn’t do anything else. I didn’t move forward,” Geller said.

Geller said he spoke to federal investigators Tuesday. “They had some questions about procedure," Geller said.

The Town Council will meet on Thursday to discuss setting a special election to replace Pizzi, as required by Miami Lakes’ charter. Gov. Rick Scott suspended Pizzi on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Sweetwater’s acting mayor, Jose Diaz, released a statement Wednesday saying he will remain as commission president and serve as acting mayor during Maroño’s suspension. Should Maroño resign or be convicted, Diaz would be sworn in as mayor. The city is not calling a special election; the next mayoral election will be in May 2015.

Miami Herald reporters Joey Flechas, Chuck Rabin, Ben Brasch, Theo Karantsalis and El Nuevo Herald reporter Enrique Flor contributed to this report.

Follow @Cveiga on Twitter.

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