Miami-Dade County

Not caught on tape: Kickback sting on mayor fails

Suspended Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi leaves Miami's Federal Courthouse flanked by his attorneys Benedict P. Kuehne and Ed Shohat after being found not guilty of accepting payoffs during an undercover FBI sting, a jury ruled Thursday, August 14, 2014.
Suspended Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi leaves Miami's Federal Courthouse flanked by his attorneys Benedict P. Kuehne and Ed Shohat after being found not guilty of accepting payoffs during an undercover FBI sting, a jury ruled Thursday, August 14, 2014. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

When Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi was acquitted of federal bribery charges two years ago, he left court pumping his fist like a triumphant prizefighter. Standing right behind him was his good pal, garbage company owner Jose Luis Flores.

Sixteen months later, as the two men sat at a cigar bar, talk turned to Opa-locka, the corruption-plagued city where both had done business.

“Stay away from Opa-locka. FBI agents are crawling around all over the place,’’ Pizzi warned. “There are people in that city that are going to be going to jail. If anyone in that city calls you, there is a nine out of ten chance they got a visit, they flipped and they’re trying to fabricate something against you, set you up.”

Pizzi’s instincts were right.

On that day last December, Flores himself was working with investigators — wearing a secret recording device in an effort to ensnare the Miami Lakes mayor as part of a state corruption probe into Opa-locka Commissioner Terence Pinder.

The newly released audio of that conversation and others, along with additional evidence in the case, reveals the wider scope of the investigations into Opa-locka — and the tangled relationship between Flores and a host of characters in the city, including Pinder and Pizzi.

Flores alleged that Pizzi had agreed, then reneged, on a deal to funnel $3,000 a month to Pinder as payback for landing him the assistant attorney job in the city, a job Pizzi briefly held. But Pizzi, in several recorded meetings, explicitly denied any kickback scheme. In one conversation, Pizzi told Flores: “I put in 20 hours a day. I haven’t paid a penny to anybody. All they got was hard work.”

  • The probe of Pizzi was a spinoff — Flores had helped state investigators build a bribery case against Pinder, who killed himself in May hours before he was to surrender to face trial. But it proved unsuccessful. Pizzi never faced any charges. The investigation was closed.

Flores, through his attorneys, declined to comment. But Pizzi — who not only beat the previous federal corruption charge but sued to reclaim his mayor’s seat — had plenty to say after learning about the recordings. He lashed out at state prosecutors who ran the operation.

“If the government wants to send an informant to try and set me up, I guess they can do that,” Pizzi told the Miami Herald. “With all the terrorists and drug dealers and child molesters out there, it’s pretty disgusting that they would spend so many hours trying to set up an innocent person.”

A State Attorney’s spokesman, Ed Griffith, said in a statement: “The Pinder investigation followed the path dictated by the evidence, as every good investigation should. With the tragic death of Terence Pinder, that case is now closed.”

The state investigation into Pinder and Pizzi was separate from the ongoing FBI corruption cases into leaders in Opa-locka, which was recently placed under state supervision because administrators and political leaders have dug such a deep financial hole that the city faces bankruptcy.

Stay away from Opa-locka. FBI agents are crawling around all over the place.

Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi, warning a pal on undercover recording

It was the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics & Public Trust that first began probing Flores’ business dealing with Opa-locka. His recycling pickup company, Ecological Paper Services, had done little work in solid waste before landing a lucrative government contract with the city in late 2013. Investigators also noted that the company was strangely withdrawing about $30,000 a month around the time the contact was awarded.

Their target initially was Flores, 47, a middle-school dropout who once served probation for dealing in stolen cameras. A former toilet paper salesman, Flores eventually owned his own recycling company, along with his family.

Flores, whose father served 12 years in federal prison for marijuana trafficking, had long been associated with an array of sketchy business interests and political operatives. In the early 2000s, Flores’ ex-business partner at American Waste Paper was indicted, and later sent to prison, for cocaine trafficking in a federal investigation dubbed “Operation Babalu.” Flores was not charged.

Flores, the investigation revealed, had hired Pinder in 2013, who at the time was no longer in office after having been arrested years earlier on a racketeering charge. Flores also hired Dante Starks, a notorious Opa-locka power broker and lobbyist who was arrested along with Pinder in 2006. Others on his payroll at one time or another: Corleone Taylor, the son of Mayor Myra Taylor, and Pizzi, his longtime friend.

As an attorney and activist, Pizzi has long championed populist issues, most notably battling the rock mining industry over blasting. But the fast-talking former boxer has also been entangled in various controversies over the years.

In 2010, Miami-Dade police corruption detectives caught him on hidden tape seemingly plotting against a political rival in Miami Lakes. Nothing ever happened, police dropped the case and Pizzi dismissed the tapes as “meaningless, over the top, silly, ridiculous drinking talk.”

Then in August 2013, the FBI arrested Pizzi and accused him of accepting more than $6,000 in bribes, some of it in a paper bag at the Billiard Club, his favorite watering hole in a strip mall in Miami Lakes.

For Pizzi, the months after his arrest were dark ones. Gov. Rick Scott suspended him from his mayor’s job. Little income was coming in.

Wanting to help his old friend, Flores hired Pizzi as an in-house attorney for Ecological. He and Pinder, who served as a sort of jack-of-all trades running errands for the company, shared adjacent cubicles. By 2014, both Pinder and Pizzi rebounded.

Pinder got probation after the racketeering case against him fizzled. With Flores often attending in the court gallery, Pizzi went to trial in August 2014 — and was found not guilty.

The relationship between Pinder and Pizzi took another step when the Opa-locka commissioner, after his re-election to public office, hired the lawyer on the taxpayer dime to help him restore his ability to vote on certain federal funding issues.

Pizzi succeeded in Pinder’s case. But he struggled to regain his post as Miami Lakes mayor because the governor refused to lift his suspension, spurring a drawn-out legal battle.

Needing a job, Pizzi landed one in April 2015 as an assistant city attorney in Opa-locka. Records showed that Pinder initiated the firing of the previous city attorney, then the hiring of the new one — a lawyer named Vincent Brown, who in turn hired Pizzi as a subcontractor.

The unusual arrangement shielded Pizzi’s salary from the public. At the time, Pizzi and Brown refused to reveal his pay. Flores later claimed that he pulled strings with Pinder to get Pizzi the job — a $9,000 a month gig. But as Pizzi and Pinder rebounded, Flores’ fortunes were fading.

His company, Ecological, was unprepared for the scale of picking up garbage for the residents of Opa-locka and was imploding, failing to pay franchise fees owed to the city. By the fall of 2014, as Pinder mounted his comeback campaign, he barely came into work at Ecological, leading to a blow-up between him and Flores.

But Pinder soon “began getting aggressive” in pressuring Flores, who began forking over off-the-book cash for Pinder’s comeback campaign, Flores told police. Flores said he felt compelled to buy custom-made guayabera shirts emblazoned with “Team Pinder.”

The reason: Flores said he believed Pinder, once elected, would find a way to torpedo the impending sale of his sputtering garbage pickup operation. He said he continued giving Pinder cash after the election.

Finally in February 2015, Ecological declared federal bankruptcy as suppliers and a slew of ex-employees went to court to demand money. As part of the court case, Pinder surprised Flores by putting in a claim himself for $25,000 in unpaid back wages, money the businessman said he never owed his former employee.

Pizzi also suddenly jumped ship to go work for Universal Waste Services, which was assuming the Opa-locka contract and was negotiating to buy Ecological’s operation. Flores told investigators that he believed Pizzi immediately used his inside knowledge of Ecological to help Universal.

He also alleged that he and Pizzi had a history of shady deals, something vehemently denied by Pizzi, who is running for a third term this fall. Pizzi claims he stopped working for Flores because of his concerns about the businessman’s dishonest conduct — the two even got into a scuffle inside Opa-locka City Hall.

It was against this backdrop that investigators from the ethics commission and the State Attorney’s Public Corruption Task Force approached Flores, who agreed to talk — and wear a wire.

Soon, Flores rekindled his relationship with Pinder, meeting him at his office and home, where prosecutors said they discussed a “number of public corruption-related criminal schemes” between June 2015 and early this year, according to an arrest warrant.

The allegations against Pizzi surfaced at an Aug. 6, 2015, meeting when Flores, again secretly recording the exchange, asked if Pinder was still getting a monthly $3,000 kickback from Pizzi for getting him the job. Pinder sounded baffled.

“Mike don’t give me sh-t,” Pinder said angrily.

“He owes you three grand a month. ... He’s f---ing you,” said Flores, who claimed Pizzi was also supposed to give him $1,000 a month.

With Flores at his side, a testy Pinder called Pizzi on speakerphone. “Are you f---ing me, Mike? ” Pinder told him. “He says you’re f---ing me.”

“What are you talking about,” Pizzi replied.

The conversation quickly turned to joking around and plans for dinner. “You saw how he changed the conversation?” Flores said after they hung up, adding: “He’s taking you to the cleaners.”

The three never got together for dinner. But Flores did meet with Pizzi on Oct. 13 at Lakes Seafood. He did not confront Pizzi, according to the secret tapes, asking only that Pinder “thought I was getting money from you.”

Pizzi sent a text with a message that he wasn’t for sale: “Jose. Thanks. my friend. But I’m not interested in Opa Locka. DON’T DO BUSINESS THAT WAY. SEE YOU SOON. THEY CAN FIND ANOTHER LAWYER.”

Pizzi replied that he paid nobody, then floated a plan to ask Pinder to get the city to hire him for “special litigation” at $150 an hour. “Just to get back in the door,” Pizzi said on the recording. “All he gets is great services at a great cost.”

Pizzi told the Miami Herald that Flores called him later, pressing him to get involved in a corruption scheme in Opa-locka. He said he sent Flores a text that he wasn’t for sale: “Jose. Thanks. my friend. But I’m not interested in Opa Locka. DON’T DO BUSINESS THAT WAY. SEE YOU SOON. THEY CAN FIND ANOTHER LAWYER.”

The two did not speak again until December, when Pizzi said Flores called to meet for a drink at the Havana Group Cigar Club in Miami Lakes. As football blared on the TV in the background, Pizzi urged Flores to stay away from Opa-locka and leave him out of city business.

“Do me a favor, never mention my name,” Pizzi said.

Pizzi insisted that the recordings prove he did nothing wrong.

“I’m proud that once again, I’m shown to be an honest person who refused to do anything wrong,” Pizzi told The Herald last week. “I’m an honest person with integrity and my reputation intact.”