Lobbyist Jorge Forte was many things to Sweetwater Mayor Manuel Maroño: close friend, business partner, political ally — and bagman.
But in the end, Forte gave the feds a helping hand in nailing Maroño. So, the Miami-Dade lobbyist on Thursday received a one-year prison sentence from a federal judge in Fort Lauderdale, much less than his one-time buddy.
Federal prosecutors had recommended that Forte, 42, receive 1 1/2 years in prison for his “substantial assistance” in an FBI sting operation targeting Maroño. Forte, who had once worked as Maroño’s chief of staff, must surrender to federal prison on April 4.
Last month, Maroño — who, like Forte, pleaded guilty to a fraud conspiracy — was slapped with a 40-month prison sentence. U.S. District Judge William Zloch characterized their public corruption — splitting $60,000 in bribes for supporting sham government grant deals — as a “cancer” in South Florida.
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Initially, the judge allowed Maroño, 42, to start his prison term on March 31. But after Thursday’s hearing, Zloch issued a new order requiring the former mayor to surrender to the U.S. Marshals next Tuesday. He did not provide an explanation.
But at the hearing, the judge learned that Maroño recently did an interview with a Spanish-language TV station in which he said he would not have cooperated with federal authorities like Forte because he was not a “snitch.”
Zloch’s more lenient punishment for Forte came after the judge had pressured the lobbyist to explain why he broke the law, saying he played a role that was “more than just a bagman,” as his defense lawyers argued.
“He did more than just hand the money over to Mr. Maroño,” Zloch said, pointing out that Forte wasn’t “just some poor mule.”
“I’m not saying that, your honor,” said defense attorney Donald Bierman.
“He was obviously a very trusted confidant of Mr. Maroño,” the judge said.
Then, a choked-up Forte apologized to Zloch. He took “full responsibility” for his crime as he tried to impress upon the judge that his “poor decisions” did not reflect his true character.
“Mr. Maroño obviously brought you into this [scheme],” the judge said. “Why didn’t you walk away from Mr. Maroño?”
As Forte struggled to respond, Zloch said: “You did it for the money?”
“Yes, sir,” Forte said.
Last summer, Forte’s tight relationship with the Sweetwater mayor effectively ended when FBI agents came knocking on the front door of the lobbyist’s home. He admitted that he and Maroño were splitting thousands of dollars in kickbacks in exchange for officially supporting the city’s applications for purported economic-development grants.
Forte quickly agreed to cooperate in the FBI's sting operation and arranged to meet the mayor in the lobbyist's car outside City Hall in early August. Forte, wearing a recording device, handed Maroño $5,000 in cash. It was a bribe from a fictitious Chicago company run by undercover agents, who had lured both the mayor and lobbyist into the phony federal grant scheme.
Forte’s flipping on his friend was revealed in November, when both pleaded guilty to an honest-service fraud charge in Fort Lauderdale federal court. The charge accused them of illegally splitting a total of $60,000 in cash and checks for official favors and concealing those payments from the public.
Their demise as local movers and shakers — Maroño was also close to Florida Gov. Rick Scott — shook up the Miami-Dade political establishment.
Forte’s lawyers sought to capitalize on his cooperation with the feds by requesting a prison sentence of one year and three months, with half that time spent behind bars and the other half under house arrest.
While his attorneys acknowledged in court papers that Forte acted as a “conduit for illegal payments” to the Sweetwater mayor, they urged the judge to consider “more than just the bare facts” of his offense.
Bierman, along with lawyer David Weinstein, said that after FBI agents confronted Forte, he “immediately began a path to assist the government with pro-active, potentially dangerous and anti-cultural cooperation.”
Zloch, the judge, asked Forte’s lawyers to explain what they meant by “anti-cultural.”
Weinstein said that Forte’s decision to turn against his close friend, an influential Cuban-American politician, was “significant” because it would be seen as a betrayal. He also said that Forte broke ranks with fellow lobbyists by breaking an unofficial code of silence.
To make his point, Weinstein told the judge that Maroño did the Spanish-language TV interview with Univision after last month’s sentencing, in which the convicted mayor said he was “betrayed” by Forte, godfather to one of his sons.
Asked in the interview why he did not cooperate with authorities, Maroño said: “On numerous occasions my attorneys asked me, suggested to me to cooperate with the government and if I cooperated, perhaps I would get a lesser sentence, but that is not Manny Maroño.
“Later, you will be able to refer to me as a convict, but not a rat or a snitch or as having cooperated with the government,” the former mayor said.
Later in Thursday’s hearing, the judge noted that Forte’s criminal role was “smaller” than Maroño’s.
The federal sentencing guidelines for Forte’s fraud offense ranged from 2 1/2 to 3 years. But Assistant U.S. Attorney Jared Dwyer had recommended that Forte receive a 40 percent decrease from the low end of that range, which would result in a 1 1/2-year sentence.
Dwyer told the judge that Forte’s cooperation was “substantial,” noting that it’s rare for anyone in public-corruption cases to come forward and help investigators.
“They normally take their lumps and their sentences,” the prosecutor said.
Dwyer also pointed out that while Forte didn’t face the kind of danger that a cooperating witness might face in a drug-trafficking probe, he said that Maroño “had a firearm on him” when he was arrested in August. He also said the mayor had a concealed-weapons permit.
As part of their pleas, Maroño and Forte must each return $30,000 in kickbacks to the federal government. As part of his cooperation, Forte also agreed to make a training video for the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust.
Two others facing similar kickback charges resulting from the same FBI sting operation are suspended Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi, 51, and lobbyist Richard Candia, 49, though both allegedly received far less money than Maroño and Forte.