Miami-Dade County

Sweetwater mayor, lobbyist plead guilty

Suspended Sweetwater Mayor Manuel Maroño and lobbyist Jorge Forte both pleaded guilty Wednesday to a corruption conspiracy for pocketing thousands of dollars in kickbacks while seeking federal grants in an FBI sting operation.

The honest-services fraud charge accuses them of illegally splitting $60,000 in cash and checks for official favors and concealing those payments from the public.

The defendants appeared in Fort Lauderdale federal court before U.S. District Judge William Zloch, who asked Maroño, "Why did you do this?"

"I did this for personal benefit," Maroño told the judge.

Later, outside the courthourse, Maroño apologized for his conduct and thanked supporters in Sweetwater.

“The city is bigger than one person,’’ he said. “The city needs to move on.”

Both defendants face sentencing Jan. 23 for a crime that carries up to five years in prison, although under sentencing guidelines, the punishment is likely to run between 2 1/2 and three years. Forte also might benefit from the fact that he did not commit his alleged crime as a public official and that he cooperated with the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office in their investigation.

“Jorge Forte deeply regrets his involvement in this case,” his defense attorney, David Weinstein, said in a statement. “He will do everything he can to make up for it.”

Federal authorities are also investigating Maroño’s past involvement in a Sweetwater towing company.

Two others facing similar kickback charges resulting from the same sting operation are former Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi and lobbyist Richard Candia. Pizzi pleaded not guilty last month. 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.