Miami-Dade County

Convicted lobbyist testifies about paying $3,000 bribe to suspended Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi

Richard Candia, a veteran Miami-Dade lobbyist who ran in both Anglo and Hispanic political circles, testified Tuesday that the “scariest thing” that ever happened to him came knocking on his door last summer.

He said a trio of FBI agents told him the morning of June 25 that he was in “a lot of trouble” for taking bribes and that they needed his assistance in an undercover operation.

A week later, a wired-up Candia was carrying an envelope stuffed with $3,000 in cash that he would deliver to Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi at Medley Town Hall, where he also worked as the small municipality’s attorney.

“We went into a storage closet in his office,” the now-convicted Candia testified at Pizzi’s bribery trial in Miami federal court. “That rustling noise [on the undercover recording] was me reaching into my pocket to get the envelope.”

Candia further testified that he gave Pizzi the envelope with 30 $100 bills inside. The same day, the mayor promised to sign a letter endorsing a federal grant application for a jobs study in Miami Lakes that, prosecutors say, was really meant to enrich him, Candia and two sleazy Chicago businessmen who were actually undercover FBI agents. Pizzi, however, never signed that letter.

Pizzi, 51, was arrested last August on charges of accepting that bribe and three others for a total of $6,750 in illegal checks and cash from the two undercover FBI agents pretending to own a grant-writing business. Prosecutors say the agents coaxed Pizzi into supporting the sham federal grant applications in Miami Lakes and Medley in exchange for the bribes.

The FBI sting operation was launched in the summer of 2011 after public-corruption agents retained Miami-Dade lobbyist Michael Kesti as an informant. Kesti, who would be paid $114,000 in fees and expenses including a rented Lexus, told the FBI there were several corrupt lobbyists and politicians in the county.

Their first target was Candia, who had Miami Lakes and Medley as clients and was close to Pizzi.

Candia, 49, pleaded guilty in May, and will get credit for flipping for the feds against Pizzi. For his part, Candia accepted only $500 in bribes for arranging Pizzi’s first meeting with the two FBI undercover agents at Miami Lakes Town Hall. But Candia pocketed an additional $16,000 in bribes in a similar grant scheme with Sweetwater Mayor Manny Maroño and his right-hand man, lobbyist Jorge Forte, both of whom pleaded guilty.

Pizzi’s defense attorney, Ed Shohat, attempted to portray Candia as an untrustworthy witness who “lied” to prosecutors and the federal grand jury about the mayor’s role during a turning point in the FBI sting operation.

Shohat got Candia to admit that he lied when he claimed that Pizzi pulled the federal grant resolution off the Miami Lakes Town Council agenda in April of last year because of potential scrutiny by other local officials.

On Tuesday, Shohat focused his cross-examination of Candia on the $3,000 exchange at Medley Town Hall on July 1, 2013, suggesting that it was nothing more than a reimbursement for the mayor’s own expenses on behalf of a local political action committee that supported his goals in Miami Lakes.

The defense attorney accused Candia of “barging into” Pizzi’s office that day.

After agreeing to cooperate, Candia told Pizzi that he was “trying to accommodate” his request for a donation to his PAC and that he would try to obtain it from the Chicago businessmen — or from another possible contributor close to the lobbyist, according to undercover recordings.

Candia told Pizzi that he would try to get the donation from “our guys,” saying they wanted him to write a letter endorsing their Chicago consulting company to help land the federal economic development grant for Miami Lakes.

But Shohat pointed out that the recordings show Pizzi did not agree to any terms, as the mayor told the lobbyist that any PAC donation “has nothing to do with” the grant deal being pushed by the Chicago guys.

At one point, Pizzi said he needed the donation as a reimbursement for $3,000 that he had already personally spent on campaign costs for the Miami Lakes PAC. He told Candia to sit tight while he looked into the issue.

But rather than wait, Candia unexpectedly showed up that early July day at Medley Town Hall. He handed Pizzi the envelope stuffed with the $3,000 — supplied by the FBI — in the closet of the office Pizzi used as town attorney.

“That’s three,” Candia told him.

“OK,” Pizzi answered. “You did good.”

But at trial, Shohat pressured Candia to admit that he personally gave the cash to Pizzi in “in the context of the PAC.”

“I know that’s what I said [on the recording],” Candia testified. But he countered that he meant Pizzi could use the money for himself, courtesy of the Chicago businessmen.

Shohat also disclosed a check in court that Pizzi wrote for exactly $3,000 to a PAC campaign worker on June 24, 2013 — one week before the mayor would receive the alleged bribe from the lobbyist.

The check was made out to Donald Alvarado, who Shohat said did work for the PAC, known as Miami Lakes Voters for Good Government.

Candia testified that he had heard of the PAC but not of Alvarado.

Pizzi’s trial, now in its fourth week, will resume Thursday with more testimony by Candia.