Miami-Dade County

Suspended Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi is found not guilty

When the verdict came down, suspended Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi bawled and bear-hugged his lawyers. And, as he strode out of the federal courthouse, the ever-excitable politician could not resist as he stepped up to the press microphones.

Three triumphant fist pumps. A broad grin. Not guilty of all corruption charges.

“I always said I was innocent,” Pizzi said. “There were times when it was a lonely cry and I thought no one would believe me.”

The jury’s decision Thursday afternoon was a resounding victory for the longtime Miami Lakes politician who insisted after his August 2013 arrest that he was entrapped by unsavory law enforcement tactics and informants. Within minutes of his courtroom victory, Pizzi’s attorneys called Gov. Rick Scott to ask that their client be reinstated to his position as the elected mayor of the suburban Northwest Miami-Dade town.

After his press conference, Pizzi immediately hopped into his blue Kia and drove to Miami Lakes town hall for a symbolic after-hours return.

“The last time I was in town hall was when I was dragged out in handcuffs,” Pizzi said. “It means a lot to me to go back to that building.”

Pizzi, a fast-talking two-term mayor who has long cultivated an anti-establishment image, said that the ordeal of the past year has made him a new man. The jury hoped so too — one juror told the Miami Herald that the mayor’s “suspicious” behavior nearly led to a conviction but that there was simply not enough evidence.

“During the trial, we all saw a lot of arrogance in him,” said the woman, who asked not to be identified. “Everyone was praying that he becomes humble after all this.”

The verdict, rendered after two full days of deliberations, was another blow to the federal government’s public corruption efforts in South Florida. Just three months ago, federal jurors acquitted former Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina of tax evasion.

Two other recently arrested mayors are awaiting trial: North Miami’s Lucie Tondreau, in a federal wire fraud case, and Homestead’s Steven Bateman, in a state case of illegal compensation.

Prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, who did not speak to reporters following the verdict, issued a short statement: “While we are disappointed with the outcome in this case, we respect the jury’s verdict.”

The jury verdict followed a month-long trial in which federal prosecutors portrayed Pizzi as a greedy politician who accepted a total of $6,750 in illegal cash during several different meetings, including one in a smoky pool hall, a Starbucks coffee shop and the closet of his city office in Medley.

Federal authorities arrested Pizzi after a two-year investigation that also netted the arrest of lobbyists Richard Candia and Jorge Forte, and Sweetwater Mayor Manuel Maroño.

Undercover FBI agents, working with lobbyist-turned-informant Michael Kesti, posed as crooked Chicago businessmen looking to pay off elected officials in exchange for supporting supposedly lucrative federal grants. Candia agreed to help them, suggesting Pizzi could help them in the scheme that would line the pockets of the supposed businessmen.

The same sting produced overwhelming evidence against allies Candia, Forte and Maroño, who pleaded guilty.

But the evidence was far from clear cut in the case of Pizzi, who also worked as town attorney in Medley. His lawyers told jurors that Pizzi appeared disinterested in the scheme and wouldn’t bother returning phone calls from the lobbyists.

And when the lobbyists finally got Pizzi to bite, he never made any clear-cut admission on hidden recording devices.

In one payout, he got $750 in checks for his campaign, which his lawyers insisted was legitimate. In another payout, Candia claimed he gave Pizzi $1,000 tucked in a newspaper at a Starbucks — the defense claimed Pizzi was actually meeting with a client that morning and was not at the Starbucks.

In one meeting, the undercover agents also foisted on Pizzi a plastic bag containing two cigars and $2,000 cash during a pool game at the Billiards Club, the mayor’s watering hole. His defense: he never knew it had money inside, and he gave it away to a bar patron out of view of the agents.

And the final alleged payout: $3,000, given by Candia to Pizzi inside the Medley office closet. The explanation? Pizzi took the money, but it was only to reimburse himself for funds he had given to a political action committee.

At trial, a high-powered defense team — Ed Shohat, Ben Kuehne, Michael Davis and Ralf Rodriguez — skewered the government’s case. The government clearly entrapped a mayor who had no history of wrong doing, Shohat told jurors.

“We had a fair fight — and the truth won,” Shohat said.

The 12-person federal jury struggled during deliberations.

“It was extremely hard for us,” one juror said. “Most would have found him guilty, but there wasn’t enough evidence to prove him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Overall, the jurors viewed the $750 bribery charge as the weakest and the $3,000 count as “entrapment,” a state campaign violation at best. Candia was seen as “inconsistent.” And jurors bought Pizzi’s pool hall explanation.

Jurors deliberated more than 14 hours over three days. When the verdict was announced just before 4 p.m., one Pizzi supporter howled in delight and clapped his hands.

By the early evening, Pizzi was back in Miami Lakes.

“I may go to the Billiards Clubs for a beer with all of my friends and family,” Pizzi said. “But absolutely, no cigars.”