As depicted by the government, Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi was a greedy politician who “sold his office” for money from undercover FBI agents posing as crooked businessmen needing his influence in government.
“Mr. Pizzi knew this was a corrupt scheme,” federal prosecutor Bob Senior told jurors Tuesday during closing arguments in Pizzi’s corruption trial. “He participated in a corrupt scheme.”
But as told by Pizzi’s defense team, he was nothing more than a honest politician looking to help his community. He supported the bogus businessmen’s plan while being pushed, prodded and ultimately entrapped into accepting only part of the money — though for legitimate reasons.
“It is impossible that Mike Pizzi could have corrupt intent,” defense attorney Ed Shohat said.
Now, Miami federal jurors must decide whether Pizzi is guilty of seven corruption-related counts. The jury will begin deliberating Wednesday morning.
Pizzi, the twice-elected but currently suspended mayor who also served as the town attorney in Medley, was arrested in August 2013 in a high-profile sting that netted prison time for the mayor of Sweetwater. Tuesday’s closing arguments capped more than a month of trial for the fast-talking Pizzi, who has long touted himself as an anti-establishment crusader.
During the sting, FBI agents posed as Chicago businessmen running a company called Sunshine Universal, which was seeking to get South Florida cities to apply for a federal grant that, on paper, would bring hundreds of thousands of dollars to the cities. Working with lobbyist-turned-paid-informant Michael Kesti, the agents told Pizzi that they planned to steal the money while offering to compensate Pizzi.
Pizzi — who supported the grant application in Miami Lakes and in Medley — made it known he wanted money for his official support, Senior said.
“What kind of politician demands more money for simply sponsoring a free program that’s ‘good for the city,’ ” Senior told jurors.
But Shohat insisted that the agents, Kesti and lobbyist Richard Candia — Pizzi’s pal who was arrested and convicted as part of the scheme — consistently reinforced the notion that the program was legitimate. Pizzi supported the supposed grant but consistently shrugged off efforts to implicitly ask for money.
“Any good honest politician, trying to get hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not in the seven figures [for his community], would have done the exact same thing,” Shohat said.
Many of the conversations between Candia, Kesti, the FBI agents and Pizzi were captured on covertly recorded audio played for jurors during the trial.
In all, prosecutors said Pizzi accepted four illegal payoffs between 2011 and 2013, including $3,000 given by Candia in the mayor’s office, money the defense insisted was meant to pay back money the mayor had himself personally loaned to a political action committee.
In another payoff, Candia allegedly gave $1,000 in cash, tucked in a newspaper, to Pizzi in a Miami Lakes Starbucks. As proof, Pizzi’s phone was traced to an area by the coffee shop, prosecutors said.
The defense says Candia was also entrapped by the feds and testified against Pizzi simply working to reduce his prison sentence. That day, Pizzi was actually in a meeting with a client at a nearby house, never in the Starbucks.
“Richard Candia is lying about everything that happened that day,” Shohat said.
Pizzi was also given $750 in campaign contributions, money the defense says was legitimate.
In perhaps the most problematic of the payoffs for the defense, the undercover FBI agents also say that they gave Pizzi $2,000 in cash, stuffed in a clear bag with two cigars, during an outing at a Miami Lakes pool hall. Pizzi’s defense insists that he gave the bag away to a bar patron, never actually knowing what was inside — out of sight of the FBI agents.
Shohat also blasted the FBI for failing to seize video surveillance footage from inside the bar that would have depicted what happened.
Government lawyers, however, pointed out that Pizzi — a criminal defense lawyer and former probation officer — never called authorities to report any of the shady actions of the businessmen, Kesti and Candia over the two years.
“There was no call because Pizzi is in on the deal,” Senior said.