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Pleas likely in Sweetwater mayor, lobbyist fraud case

Suspended Sweetwater Mayor Manuel Maroño and lobbyist Jorge Forte appear to be laying the groundwork to plead guilty to a corruption conspiracy stemming from their pocketing thousands of dollars in kickbacks while seeking federal grants in an FBI sting operation.

On Friday, they will be arraigned in Miami federal court on a single charge of conspiring to commit honest services fraud. The charge, filed Thursday in a so-called information instead of an indictment, is a tell-tale sign that the two defendants are cooperating with the U.S. attorney’s office.

While they plan to plead not guilty to the conspiracy charge Friday, they are expected to change their plea to guilty at a later date. The charge, which accuses them of illegally receiving cash for official favors and concealing those payments from the public, carries up to five years in prison.

“From the beginning, we have said that we have placed our trust in the criminal justice system to resolve this matter,” Forte’s criminal defense attorney, David Weinstein, said Thursday. “Jorge Forte deeply regrets his involvement in this case. He will do everything he can to make up for it.”

Maroño’s defense attorney, Armando Rosquete, declined to comment.

Maroño’s mother, Sweetwater Commissioner Isolina Maroño, who was first appointed and then elected to the commission, said the court will have to address the charge against her son. “One thing is what they are charging him with, and another thing is what they are able to prove,” she said.

Two others facing similar kickback charges resulting from the same sting operation, former Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi, and lobbyist Richard Candia, are scheduled for arraignment next Friday. Pizzi, who has denied wrongdoing, is expected to be indicted and face trial. Candia, who flipped for federal investigators by assisting their undercover probe, is expected to pursue the same legal strategy as the former Sweetwater mayor and Forte.

All four defendants, being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jared Dwyer, were arrested in August. According to initial criminal complaints, the two mayors and two lobbyists accepted thousands of dollars in bribes in exchange for championing purported federal grant applications for their towns. But in reality, the men were in cahoots, intending to line their pockets with the grant money — not to bring dollars into municipal coffers, according to FBI affidavits filed with the complaints.

Many of their conversations were recorded by undercover agents and on phone taps.

The two corruption cases, which started in 2011 with a confidential tip from a local lobbyist who worked as an informant for the FBI, were remarkable even by South Florida’s standards: The crackdown snared two municipal mayors and two lobbyists on the same day.

Initially, FBI agents arrested Pizzi, 51, and Maroño, 41, at their offices on charges of conspiring to commit extortion in their roles as elected officials between 2011 and 2013. Pizzi also was charged with the same misconduct linked to a purported federal grant for Medley, where he also served as the town attorney.

Both were ordered by a magistrate judge not to contact dozens of other politicians, officials or lobbyists, who are potential witnesses.

Also arrested on the same initial charges were lobbyists Forte, 41, the former chief of staff for Maroño in Sweetwater, and Candia, 49, a former lobbyist with the Becker & Poliakoff law firm.

Maroño is accused of working with both lobbyists to break the law. Maroño and Forte allegedly received $40,000 for their parts in the federal grant scheme and an additional $20,000 for making introductions to other public officials on behalf of undercover FBI agents posing as Chicago businessmen. They purported to operate a grant-writing business, Sunshine Universal, with access to federal grant money for economic development to create jobs.

The undercover agents used Candia to approach Maroño and Pizzi, pitching them on the idea of making easy money by using the fictitious Chicago grant business to tap into an actual government agency.

Maroño, a member of the city commission since 1995, was elected mayor in 2003. Before his arrest, he had served as president of the Florida League of Cities, with a membership of more than 400 cities, towns and villages in the state. In 2011, he also played a role on Gov. Rick Scott’s transition team.

Maroño’s downfall has taken a toll on those close to him.

Sweetwater Commissioner Manuel Duasso, who served with Maroño for years, said Thursday: “What’s happening is very sad for me in particular and for the city.”

“I have known Manolito ever since he was a kid and he is still a young man, so this is hard for his family,” Duasso said. “But the law is the law. If he is guilty he will have to pay, but they would have to find him guilty first, which hasn’t happened.”