Miami-Dade County

Closing arguments set in corruption trial of Miami Lakes mayor

Suspended Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi could learn as early as Tuesday whether jurors believe he is guilty of pocketing bribes, including $2,000 cash from undercover federal agents inside a smoky pool hall.

Lawyers are scheduled to deliver closing arguments Tuesday morning in a Miami federal court, with deliberations to follow.

Pizzi’s defense rested Monday after several days of presenting witnesses aimed at explaining away allegations that the politician accepted money four separate times between 2011 and 2013.

A guilty verdict could spell the end of a career for the fast-talking, populist-style politician first elected to the Miami Lakes City Council in 2000, then to the mayor’s seat eight years later. An acquittal would be a resounding triumph for Pizzi, who had long insisted he is innocent, set up by questionable FBI tactics and unscrupulous informants.

Federal prosecutors say Pizzi took the money in exchange for supporting a phony federal grant application sought by two crooked Chicago businessmen — actually undercover FBI agents working with a lobbyist-turned-informant Michael Kesti.

In perhaps the most visible of the payouts, a FBI agent testified that Pizzi in February 2013 knowingly accepted $2,000 in cash stuffed inside a clear plastic bag with two Fuentes-brand cigars. The deal took place at the Miami Lakes Billiards Club, a watering hole frequented by Pizzi.

The agent said Pizzi took the bag to the bathroom and returned to the VIP section, where he and his partner had all been playing pool with the mayor.

But last week, bar patron George Lopez — an avid cigar smoker — told jurors that Pizzi actually handed him the bag that night as the mayor returned to the VIP section.

“He told me it was a couple of cigars,” the postal worker told jurors under questioning by defense attorney Ed Shohat.

No fan of Fuentes cigars, he claimed he did not want the gift and left the bag on a small table. “I really don’t have any interest in those cigars,” Lopez testified. “I carry my own cigars.”

Lopez, on cross examination, admitted to prosecutor Jared Dwyer that he never bothered to approach the FBI about his story, even after reading Miami Herald coverage of Pizzi’s arrest.

So what happened to the bag and the money?

Another bar patron, pizza restaurant owner Frank DiPiazza, testified last week that he found the bag and said to himself, “Whoa, cigars.” When he opened the white envelope, he found the cash, never knowing the origin of the money.

“I just put it in my pocket,” DiPiazza said. “I probably went back up to the bar and had a drink.”

Federal prosecutors also contend that Pizzi took $1,000 in cash from disgraced lobbyist Richard Candia, who was arrested in the sting and testified against the mayor. Candia said he gave the cash, stuffed inside a newspaper, to Pizzi inside a Miami Lakes Starbucks in December 2012.

Cellphone records also pinpointed Pizzi’s phone in the geographic area near the coffee shop.

Pizzi’s defense lawyers have painted Candia as a liar looking to lessen his prison sentence.

To shoot down the claim, defense lawyers last week called to the stand Jorge Concepcion, a businessman who told jurors he was actually meeting with Pizzi at a house nearby at the time of the alleged Starbucks encounter.

On Monday, for their final rebuttal witness, prosecutors put on a phone company engineer who testified that Pizzi’s phone call likely came south of a cellphone tower — near the Starbucks, in the opposite direction of the home where Pizzi purportedly met with Concepcion.