To Sweetwater Mayor Manuel Maroño, the line between policy-making and influence-peddling was a thin one marked by two of his favorite lobbyists, Richard Candia and Jorge Forte. They eagerly tread where Maroño couldn’t — and helped him cross that line into a corrupt world of cash bribes, federal prosecutors contend.
Maroño, the mayor of Sweetwater for the past decade and a confidant of Gov. Rick Scott, was powerful enough to get elected president of the statewide League of Cities last year. But he could not have pocketed thousands of dollars in kickbacks during an FBI undercover sting involving government grants without Candia and Forte acting as his go-betweens, according to federal charges against the threesome.
The two-year investigation, which climaxed Tuesday with bribery charges against them and Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi, provided a rare inside view into how co-dependent relationships between politicians and lobbyists fuel governance at City Halls across South Florida.
Consider this scene: In March 2012, Maroño and the two lobbyists met at a Coral Gables hotel with a pair of undercover agents posing as Chicago businessmen, who had sold them on a scam overtly designed to fleece grant money from the feds, according to a criminal complaint.
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Maroño told them Forte, his former mayoral chief of staff and current business partner in a private lobbying firm, was his “right-hand man” and that the purported businessmen should only deal with Forte regarding federal grants for $200,000 and $1.2 million, the complaint said. Over dinner, the group discussed pitching the grant scheme to other South Florida elected officials as well.
Maroño told the agents that Forte spoke for him. Declared Forte in agreement: “In Miami-Dade County, you want something from him [Marono], you don’t call him, you call me ... It’s just the way it works.”
On Wednesday, Forte and Candia surrendered to federal authorities and were granted $100,000 bonds each after being charged with conspiring to commit extortion along with Maroño between 2011 and 2013. Candia was charged separately with the same offense, for allegedly conspiring with Miami Lakes’ Pizzi during that period.
Magistrate Judge Andrea Simonton set the arraignments for all four defendants for Aug. 27.
William Barzee, who represents Candia, 49, said of his client: “He is a hard-working, humble guy who has done a lot for the community. He’s made significant achievements on behalf of University of Miami and FIU At this point, I would ask everyone to keep an open mind.’’
David Weinstein, lawyer for Forte, 41, said, “We will let the facts speak for themselves as they are presented in court.’’
Prosecutors said the two mayors and two lobbyists accepted thousands of dollars in kickbacks in exchange for championing purported federal grant applications for their towns. But in reality, the feds said, the men were in cahoots to enrich themselves— not municipal coffers.
FBI agents Tuesday arrested Pizzi, 51, and Maroño, 41, at their Town Hall offices. Pizzi also was charged with the same alleged misconduct linked to a grant application in Medley, where he is the town attorney. Both mayors were formally suspended from office by Gov. Rick Scott.
Pizzi’s lawyer said he will be vindicated. Maroño’s lawyer declined to comment.
Judge Simonton ordered all four men to avoid contact with dozens of politicians, officials or lobbyists who are potential witnesses.
According to authorities, the Sweetwater mayor and two lobbyists pitched the grant scheme to other public officials — some of whom are on the witness list — by making contacts at a Florida League of Cities event last summer in Hollywood. They brought the undercover FBI agents posing as businessmen to the gathering to introduce them around, not knowing their conversations were being secretly recorded.
Among the public officials they tried to recruit: Frank Ortis, mayor of Pembroke Pines.
In August, Forte lobbied the Pembroke Pines City Commission in person after earlier meeting with Ortis to pitch the grant application deal, according to records. Ortis placed the lobbyist’s item on the agenda.
At the meeting, Forte asked the commission to approve a resolution he had drafted authorizing Sunshine Universal — the company name used by the FBI agents — to apply for an AmeriCorps grant up to $100,000 on behalf of the city, according to minutes of the meeting.
But Pines commissioners did not pass the resolution, voting instead to direct city staff to look for AmeriCorps grants themselves. Ortis said city staff never followed up. “We asked the administration to look into it, and they never got back to us,’’ he said.
Forte was former chief of staff for Maroño in Sweetwater and his current business partner in a lobbying firm called 7 Strategies. FBI agents described Forte in court papers as the mayor’s “front man.”
Candia, a former legislative aide to then-state Sen. Mario Diaz-Balart, resigned Tuesday as a lobbyist for 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 in Sweetwater and an additional $20,000 for making introductions to other public officials on behalf of the undercover agents. Forte allegedly collected the money and split it with the mayor.
Candia allegedly received at least $5,000 in kickbacks for the Sweetwater grant deal, and also received $500 for arranging Pizzi’s first meeting with the undercover agents, prosecutors said.
Pizzi is accused of breaking the law with Candia, who began cooperating with the FBI after agents approached him in late June. Pizzi allegedly received $5,000 in cash kickbacks for the Miami Lakes grant deal and an additional $1,000 cash and $750 in campaign contributions for a deal in Medley, where he is the town attorney.
The investigation started in May 2011, after undercover agents tapped a confidential informant — an unidentified Miami-Dade lobbyist — to introduce them to Candia to carry out their sting operation.
The following September, one of the undercover FBI agents told Candia: “The play here is for the money,” according to an FBI affidavit filed with the criminal complaints.
Soon after, Candia introduced the agents to Maroño and Pizzi, pitching them on the idea of making easy money. How? By using a fictitious Chicago grant business, Sunshine Universal, to swindle an actual government agency, AmeriCorps, for grants.
Both Maroño and Pizzi sponsored resolutions to apply for the federal grants and wrote endorsement letters to the government for the money, authorities said. They also are accused of lying to FBI undercover agents who posed as auditors for AmeriCorps, saying the money had come in and was being properly spent, when neither was true.
Monroe County Administrator Roman Gastesi, a former water resources manager in Miami-Dade, said he recalled running into Forte and Maroño together at a June 2012 event. Gestasi said they asked him if he was interested in an economic development grant.
Within days, Gestasi received an email from Forte with an attachment of the same grant proposal that had passed the town councils in Sweetwater and Miami Lakes.
“It was great to see you the other day, as discussed I have attached the draft resolution for your review and placement on your next monthly agenda. If you have any further questions once you reviewed the resolution, please feel free to contact me,” Forte wrote.
The resolution gave the Monroe County mayor and commissioners the authority to engage Sunshine Universal to assist the county in applying for grants with Americorps.
“They said ‘Look at this and get back.’ I never did. We never spoke about it again,” said Gestasi, whose name is on the witness list. He said he hasn’t been approached by the FBI.
Another Florida elected official, Longwood city Commissioner Joe Durso, said he knows Maroño from the Florida League of Cities. He said he recalls being approached by Candia about two years ago at a League conference.
“Rich Candia mentioned a grant program was available,” Durso said. “I never moved forward on it.”