Miami-Dade County

Federal judge scolds Pizzi, but stops short of sending him to jail

A federal judge Wednesday came within a whisker of sending suspended Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi to jail after finding that he violated the terms of his bond and lied to a probation officer about it.

But U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke instead allowed Pizzi to remain free on bail with less than a month before his trial on corruption charges of accepting bribes in exchange for political favors.

“If you keep this up, you will be across the street,” Cooke told Pizzi, referring to the nearby Miami Federal Detention Center. “You will be in jail.”

Cooke took Pizzi to task for sending out two political email blasts to his supporters in April that were also received by potential government witnesses the former mayor was forbidden from contacting before trial. Among the recipients: Miami Lakes town manager Alex Rey, whose administration was described as “corrupt” in Pizzi’s unsigned emails. They referred to an actual Miami-Dade County Ethics Commission’s ruling that found the town’s former public works director violated a conflict of interest law.

Pizzi’s probation officer, who had already put Pizzi on notice for sending out email blasts to no-contact witnesses earlier this year, told federal prosecutors that the former mayor lied when asked if he committed the same bond violation again in April. As a result, the U.S. attorney’s office asked the judge to revoke Pizzi’s $100,000 bond and detain him before his July 8 trial.

“I’m giving you fair warning right now,” Cooke told Pizzi, who was emotionally shaken by the prospect of being sent to jail. “No more, this is it. No emails. You just have to put your gadfly-ness on hold.”

Pizzi, a twice-elected Miami Lakes mayor who described himself as a longtime “gadfly” and “whistle blower,” said he can’t help himself because he’s “the guy who says the emperor has no clothes.”

“I think you’re going to have to let the emperor stand naked without your helping him,” Cooke told Pizzi.

“I may have made some stupid mistakes. It won’t happen again,” said Pizzi, who apologized while standing alongside his defense attorney, Ed Shohat. “I have gone from being a mayor ... to leading the life of a hermit.”

Federal prosecutors Jared Dwyer and Robert Senior sought to revoke Pizzi’s bond after learning that he lied about his behind-the-scene’s role in which he arranged for a public relations assistant to send the email blasts under the fake name “Jacqueline Diaz.”

“He used a bogus email address to send out an email about Alex Rey, and then when he was asked about it he lied to probation,” Dwyer told the judge. “He should be remanded” to jail.

Dwyer summarized Pizzi’s offenses for the judge, explaining how FBI agents tracked down Pizzi’s public relations assistant, Jessica Fernandez, who admitted that she collaborated with the former mayor in sending out the email blasts. He said Pizzi did not commit “stupid mistakes” but rather deliberately tried to intimidate potential witnesses such as the Miami Lakes town manager with “false allegations.”

Cooke concurred with the prosecutor’s argument, even noting that the 51-year-old Pizzi is a lawyer and former federal probation officer. But she decided to give him the benefit of the doubt as he prepares his defense for trial.

Pizzi faces fraud charges stemming from his acceptance of $6,750 in bribes from undercover FBI agents as well as a lobbyist who flipped for the feds before the Miami Lakes politician’s arrest last August.

Pizzi is accused of accepting the bribes in exchange for supporting bogus federal grant applications in Miami Lakes and Medley, where he worked as the town attorney. He has denied all charges.

During Wednesday’s hearing, the judge suggested that she might be doing Pizzi a favor if she put him in jail before his trial so he could “avoid running into his own knife.”

“I am very close to establishing electronic monitoring and curfew” as special conditions of your bond, Cooke told Pizzi. But she didn’t, insisting only that he send no more email blasts.

Said Pizzi: “I promise you there will be no further problems.”

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