Miami-Dade County

Suspended Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi declares innocence, vows to clear his name

Suspended Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi declared his innocence Saturday, saying he “accepted no money inappropriately or illegally from anyone, ever,” and that his only motivation was to obtain government grants to help his hometown and Medley.

Pizzi, arrested Tuesday on charges of accepting cash kickbacks as part of a grant scheme in an FBI undercover operation, told the Herald/El Nuevo Herald he would vindicate himself in federal court and return to lead the town that has elected him mayor twice.

“I have never committed any crime or done anything wrong,” Pizzi, 51, said in a statement prepared for the newspapers.

“Now that this has happened to me, I look forward to clearing my name in court as soon as possible so I can return to serving the people as mayor,” Pizzi, 51, said. “The evidence will prove my innocence.”

Pizzi’s lawyers, Ed Shohat and Ben Kuehne, would not allow Herald reporters to question their client.

Pizzi responded for the first time Saturday after being charged with conspiring to commit extortion with Miami-Dade lobbyist Richard Candia. Candia was also charged with the same offense in a separate complaint accusing Sweetwater Mayor Manny Maroño and lobbyist Jorge Forte of receiving kickbacks.

All are accused of participating in a “bogus” federal grant scheme designed to line their pockets with thousands of dollars while their towns would get nothing. The sting operation was orchestrated by the FBI’s anti-corruption agents who posed as Chicago businessmen claiming they would obtain the grant money and share the proceeds with the two mayors and two lobbyists.

According to FBI criminal complaints, Pizzi collected three payments totaling $6,000 in cash and received another $750 in checks for his 2012 reelection campaign in exchange for championing resolutions that paved the way for grant applications in Miami Lakes and Medley, where the mayor also worked as the town’s attorney.

Maroño and Forte are accused of accepting a total of $60,000 in cash and checks for the same scheme, but in Sweetwater. They also tried to shop the grant scheme to other South Florida politicians, according to the charges, but with no success.

Candia allegedly received $5,000 in cash for the Sweetwater deal, and another $500 for introducing Pizzi to the FBI undercover agents posing as the Chicago businessmen and to an FBI confidential informant, South Miami-Dade lobbyist Michael Kesti. He approached the FBI two years ago with suspicions that Candia was in bed with corrupt local politicians, and that Pizzi and Maroño would be open to lining their pockets.

The challenge for Miami federal prosecutors is to prove that Pizzi and the others participated in the grant scheme knowing full well that its only purpose was to enrich them. Prosecutors also have to prove that the four defendants’ intentions were criminal when they allegedly pocketed the cash payments.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jared Dwyer also has evidence of conversations — in-person and via telephone — recorded by FBI agents in which the defendants talk about their grant dealings. Candia could also be a key witness because he ultimately agreed to cooperate with the government after agents first approached him in late June.

Pizzi said he did nothing wrong because he believed that the grant program with the government agency, AmeriCorps, was legitimate. He based that assertion on his understanding that Candia and Kesti were “experts” in the grant-application business, and that they vouched for the undercover agents who promised the mayor they could deliver the money.

“The opportunity to obtain grants and resources to create jobs and expand the local economy was my obligation and duty,” Pizzi said in his statement. “Being able to do that without spending any tax money was even better.”

Here’s how the grant scheme worked: the FBI agents posed as businessmen for the fictitious nonprofit grant-application company, Sunshine Universal. Their confidential source, Kesti, arranged for them to meet fellow lobbyist, Candia, who made the introductions to the two mayors.

According to the complaint, Candia arranged for one of the agents and Kesti to meet Pizzi for the first time at the mayor’s Miami Lakes office in September 2011.

In January 2012, the two undercover agents, along with Kesti and Candia, met with Pizzi a second time at a Miami Lakes restaurant to discuss going ahead with the “bogus” grant scheme in Medley, where Pizzi worked as the town attorney. Pizzi agreed to put a resolution on the Medley Town Council’s upcoming agenda to pursue a federal grant from AmeriCorps, a real federal agency.

Days after the meeting, Kesti met Pizzi at the mayor’s office, discussed the grant program and gave him three separate $250 checks made payable to "Reelect Mayor Michael Pizzi" in exchange for putting the item on the agenda.

The following month, Pizzi pushed the passage of the grant resolution through the Medley Council, authorizing Sunshine Universal to apply for the grant on behalf of the town.

Over the next 18 months, the mayor is accused of repeating the scheme in Miami Lakes. During that time period, he allegedly collected three cash payments totaling $6,000 from Candia and the undercover FBI agents.

In his prepared statement, Pizzi said any money he may have received was all above board.

Said Pizzi: “I hold my head up very high as having served the people and will continue to do so.”