Miami-Dade County

Miami lobbyist in FBI mayor’s sting goes from political insider to defendant

Newly divorced and struggling financially, lobbyist Richard Candia fit the profile of an easy mark for an FBI informant.

“Candia,” an FBI criminal complaint said, “was believed to have contacts with public officials willing to accept bribery and kickbacks.”

It was a spot-on assessment.

From 2011 until this summer, Candia played a crucial role in recruiting Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi and Sweetwater Mayor Manny Maroño into a kickback sting involving purported federal grants that was orchestrated by the FBI.

Along with Maroño’s right-hand man, Jorge Luis Forte, the men were charged Tuesday and Wednesday in one of Miami-Dade’s biggest corruption busts in years.

For many seasoned politicos and insiders, the corruption wasn’t a shock.

But Candia’s involvement was.

From Tallahassee to Miami-Dade, Candia had a sterling reputation among public officials and fellow lobbyists in a business that’s all about reputations and personal relationships.

With a mop of dark hair that belied his 48 years, the hard-working Candia was seemingly everywhere in the halls of state and local government.

Candia was known as an honorable, good-natured and humble man. He was well-liked and trusted.

But one fellow lobbyist, Michael Kesti, knew another side of Candia.

Kesti, the Miami Herald reported Friday, was the confidential informant who in May 2011 tipped the FBI off to Candia as someone who was potentially corruptible.

The FBI criminal complaints against the four defendants read like a true-crime script in parts, excerpting secret recordings of the men as they allegedly schemed with Kesti and undercover FBI agents masquerading as sleazy businessmen from Chicago. Candia, busted before the end of the scheme, “flipped’’ for the feds and wore a wire to ensnare Pizzi.

[In a statement released Saturday exclusively to the Miami Herald/El Nuevo Herald, Pizzi said he was innocent of any wrongdoing, saying he “accepted no money inappropriately or illegally from anyone, ever.” Story, 1B]

Before that point, the transcripts show, Candia had a shrewd understanding of the two politicians and Forte, who is accused of acting as Maroño’s bagman taking illicit payoffs on behalf of the mayor.

Forte was Maroño’s “front, where he … needs a front … his filter where he needs a filter,” Candia said at one point.

Candia identified Maroño as ripe for the conspiracy from the very beginning.

“[Maroño]’s not gonna be shy, shy to ask for sh-t,” Candia told the agents in a meeting on Sept. 23, 2011. “I mean, there will be no end.”

Days before, the undercover FBI agents met with Candia to make clear that what they were doing was illegal and that they were motivated by greed.

Under the scheme, the fake company would apply for a federal grant on behalf of the city. The conspirators — not the municipality — would then divvy up the proceeds.

“The play here is for the money,” one agent told Candia, “for us to get the money and be able to use the money, you know, and just make money,”

Candia didn’t get much in the end: $5,500. Pizzi’s alleged take: $6,750. Maroño and Forte: $60,000, the FBI says.

Months after Candia’s initial meetings with the agents, on Dec. 30, 2011, Bank of America initiated foreclosure proceedings against Candia’s West Kendall home.

Candia was deeded the home after his wife divorced him the year before. Divorce records show the townhouse carried two mortgages that, in combination with taxes and other home expenses, totaled $3,650 monthly.

The couple’s joint bank account had just $2,500, and their credit-card bills were in the double-digits. More than a year later, court records show, American Express sued Candia to collect a $9,300 debt, of which he agreed to pay $4,000.

As part of the divorce, Candia also agreed to pay for his son’s schooling at Belen Jesuit Preparatory School, which can cost upward of $15,000 a year. He and his ex-wife also have a younger daughter.

As his marriage was falling apart, Candia was having a tough time earning money.

About three years before his divorce, Candia had left lobbying to work at an architecture and planning firm run by former Miami-Dade School Board member Agustin “Gus” Barrera, who said Candia was hired to attract clients because “he knew a lot of people and had good relationships with them.”

But there was one problem: “The economy tanked. No one made any money.”

Like others who know Candia, Barrera used one word — “shocked” — to describe his reaction to Candia’s alleged role in the scandal.

“He was the most honest, decent guy,” longtime lobbyist Ron Book said. “Yes, I was shocked. He was the last person I would have expected to get caught up in something like this.”

Some lobbyists said they had betting pools about which of their colleagues would get busted. No one picked Candia.

Records show Candia started to reenter the lobbying world in 2011. But he didn’t return to his longtime client, the University of Miami, which he had represented in Tallahassee as its sole lobbyist.

Instead, Candia hooked up with Jose K. Fuentes, a former South Florida Water Management District lobbyist who had good connections with local governments from Miami Lakes to Sweetwater to Homestead. Their firm earned a minimum of about $500,000 lobbying the Legislature, records show.

Candia also lobbied locally, in Miami-Dade and Homestead, where Kesti represented other clients as well.

How the two came to know each other is unclear. Neither will talk.

But the FBI records indicate that, after the end of Candia’s first legislative session with Fuentes in 2011, Kesti brought Candia to the FBI’s attention.

In all, the FBI sting involved three cities: Sweetwater, controlled by Maroño; and Miami Lakes and Medley, where Pizzi is the mayor and town attorney, respectively.

The alleged schemes involving Pizzi and Maroño appear separate. But in both cases, Candia introduced the mayors to the undercover FBI agents.

Candia and Kesti had larger roles with Pizzi than with Maroño, whose affairs were negotiated almost exclusively by his buffer, Forte. Maroño, head of the Florida League of Cities, also allegedly tried to recruit other mayors into the scheme.

Candia appeared to play a key part in keeping the Miami Lakes mayor involved in the scheme when the mayor became spooked, the FBI criminal complaint shows.

After months of apparent silence, Candia told Kesti that Pizzi was ready to proceed with the alleged scam.

“We are in,” Candia said.

But Candia learned he was in too deep on June 25 when the FBI approached him, revealed the sting and got him to wear a wire.

Candia, who wanted Pizzi to sign a document that allegedly furthered the scam, soon met him in a Medley Town Hall office with $3,000 in cash for campaign contributions.

Pizzi pulled Candia into a closet, unaware that the lobbyist was wearing a recording device.

FBI agent Paul J. Wright said in the criminal complaint that the recording indicates the sound of a door opening. The rest reads like pulp fiction:

Pizzi: “Here, here … What you got?”

At that point, the complaint said, Candia gave Pizzi the envelope with $3,000 in cash.

Candia: “That’s three.”

Pizzi: “OK. You did good.”

Miami Herald staff writers Jay Weaver and Charles Rabin, along with Herald researcher Monika Leal, contributed to this report.