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Miami Lakes cuts ties with Pizzi-linked lobbyist, now faces election dispute

The arrest of Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi has left behind an unwieldy knot that town officials began unraveling on Thursday.

In a special meeting on Thursday, the Miami Lakes Town Council unanimously agreed not to transfer its contract with the Miami lobbying firm, Fuentes Rodriguez Consulting Group, to the Fort Lauderdale law firm, Becker & Poliakoff, which had acquired Fuentes Rodriguez earlier this year. The council also voted to terminate its contract with Fuentes Rodriguez.

Richard Candia is a lobbyist who had worked at Becker & Poliakoff until Tuesday. He resigned from Becker after federal authorities on Tuesday arrested Miami Lakes Mayor Mike Pizzi and Sweetwater Mayor Manuel Maroño, charging them with conspiring to commit extortion in their roles as mayor, from 2011 to 2013. Candia and another Miami lobbyist, Jorge Forte, surrendered to federal authorities on Wednesday and were each granted $100,000 bonds after being charged with conspiring to commit extortion along with Maroño between 2011 and 2013.

Federal agents have said Candia and Pizzi, allegedly working together, took thousands of dollars in bribes in exchange for championing purported federal grant applications for Miami Lakes. In reality, the grants were part of an FBI sting and involved a fictitious company set up by federal agents, Sunshine Universal.

On Thursday, the Miami Lakes council rescinded three resolutions that are believed to have had ties with Candia, including a May 14 resolution, passed unanimously by the council, that asked town attorney Joe Geller to negotiate a contract with Sunshine Universal. Geller said Wednesday he didn’t move the resolution forward because the company was not authorized to do business in Florida.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we start looking at other things Mayor Pizzi brought in,” Councilman Nelson Hernandez told the Miami Herald Thursday.

Some residents said Thursday’s meeting represents a step in the right direction for the town.

“My feelings are this is an opportunity for Miami Lakes to have a fresh start,” said Maria Kramer. “We need to be very careful about who we elect now going forward and we as citizens need to be involved and informed because ultimately that is what will ensure we will have a government we are happy with.”

Wiping the slate clean of lobbyists and resolutions associated with the FBI sting proved to be the easy part for the council.

The task of electing a new mayor is more complicated. The town charter mandates that an election take place within 90 days of an official leaving office if the seat becomes vacant with six months or more remaining in the unexpired term. Gov. Rick Scott suspended Pizzi, elected last year to a four-year-term, from office on Tuesday.

The council would like to hold a special election on Nov. 5, the day the county and other municipalities are holding elections.

In the meantime, Mestre has taken on the role of acting mayor and said in an interview that he does plan to run for the position. In one of his first acts, Mestre nominated Councilman Manny Cid to be the town’s vice mayor, a move the council passed unanimously.

Mestre said he wants the town to move forward.

“This is not where I thought I was going to be 48 hours ago but I want this to be as little of a distraction as possible,” Mestre said. “The town goes forward.”

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