Miami Lakes

Gov. Rick Scott lifts Michael Pizzi’s suspension after Florida Supreme Court ruling

Michael Pizzi (centro).
Michael Pizzi (centro). EL NUEVO HERALD

Gov. Rick Scott lifted the suspension against Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi late Monday, hours after the Florida Supreme Court had again sided with Pizzi in his legal quest to return to office since beating federal bribery charges.

The governor, in accordance with the ruling, did not reinstate Pizzi. Whether to restore the mayor to finish his second term is a question that will now likely fall to a local court. Town attorneys for Miami Lakes say the rightful mayor is Wayne Slaton, whom voters picked in a special election following Pizzi’s indictment.

Monday’s 5-2 decision rebuked Scott two months after Florida’s highest court warned the governor that Pizzi appeared to have a solid argument. But the court granted the governor a reprieve of sorts: It said it would wait until Jan. 2 before ordering Scott to take action, giving him 11 days to comply on his own.

He complied in less than four hours.

“This is huge, man. This is huge. I won,” Pizzi said in a telephone interview from his car after learning of the court’s decision. “This is the best Christmas present the Pizzi family and the people of Miami Lakes and everyone who cares about the rule of law could ever get.”

The developments don’t guarantee Pizzi’s return to office and only promise more fireworks at Miami Lakes Town Hall, which has seen more than its share of excitement since Pizzi was removed by Scott in August 2013.

Town Attorney Raul Gastesi maintained Monday before Scott revoked the suspension that Miami Lakes has a mayor — Slaton — and stressed that the court had not ordered returning Pizzi to office.

Scott suspended Pizzi, a fellow Republican, after the feds charged the mayor with accepting a total of $6,750 in illegal bribes from federal agents posing as Chicago businessmen offering to pay elected officials in exchange for lucrative federal grants.

But even after a 12-member federal jury found Pizzi not guilty of seven charges in August, Scott held firm, refusing to revoke the suspension. Pizzi sued.

The supreme court took the unusual step in September of instructing Scott to explain his position. The governor responded he could not lift Pizzi’s suspension because his mayoral term ended with the special election of Slaton, a Democrat, to replace him last October.

In Monday’s decision, the five justices in the majority wrote that they “carefully considered” Scott’s response. But they concluded that, under the Florida Constitution, the governor has the discretion only to suspend an indicted municipal officer.

“However, upon acquittal of criminal charges, the governing statute states that the Governor has a mandatory duty to revoke the order that authorized the municipal officer’s suspension,” the court wrote.

They did not immediately issue a written order compelling Scott to act, the justices wrote, “because we believe that the Governor will fully comply with this order” by Jan. 2 — an assumption that turned out to be correct.

In the majority were Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and Justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis, Peggy Quince and James E.C. Perry. Justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston dissented.

The Miami Lakes charter, which acts as the town’s constitution, says if a seat is vacated by an official who has more than six months remaining in a term, there must be a special election for voters to choose a replacement. The charter is silent on what happens if the original official is cleared of charges.

Town attorneys have argued that Slaton’s election victory in October 2013 means he will serve through the end of the mayoral term, in 2016, instead of Pizzi. After all, Pizzi didn’t run for mayor in the special election, though he could have — and risked getting suspended again. That’s what former Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones did while she was fighting state corruption charges. She ultimately won her case, and Scott reinstated her in 2011.

Pizzi’s lawyers said if the town declines to let their client once again occupy the mayoral post, they will turn to Miami-Dade Circuit Court to seek reinstatement once Scott lifts the suspension.

“We expect the Town of Miami Lakes will follow the law and restore Mayor Pizzi to the office to which he was elected by the overwhelming vote of the citizens until his term expires in 2016,” attorney Ben Kuehne said in a prepared statement. “In that regard, the temporary replacement mayor should step aside consistent with the requirements of the rule of law. To do otherwise only subjects the Town to expensive and unnecessary legal fees.”

Kuehne called Slaton the “temporary” mayor, but the justices indicated they might not agree.

The majority opinion, while not naming Slaton, notes that Miami Lakes’ “permanent replacement mayor assumed office on October 8, 2013, and the new mayor’s term will run until the next regularly scheduled election in November 2016.”

The two justices who dissented argued that Florida law ties lifting a suspension to reinstating someone to office. Since Pizzi did not ask the court to go that far, “it is not clear that the linked act of revoking the order of suspension is required,” Canady wrote on behalf of himself and Polston.

“And it is not clear that the Petitioner would benefit in any way from the act of revocation unaccompanied by an act of restoration.”

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