Miami-Dade lobbyist avoids prison in FBI bribery case

Miami-Dade lobbyist Richard Candia said he experienced a “wake-up call” when FBI agents came knocking on his door to flip him in an undercover bribery probe last summer.

Candia would embark on a journey that transformed him from a dirty insider who took cash in exchange for political favors to a humbled cooperating witness who helped the U.S. government win convictions of a local mayor and another lobbyist, according to his defense attorney and prosecutors.

And for all of that assistance, U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke on Thursday gave the 49-year-old Candia a two-year probationary sentence — including four months of home confinement and 100 hours of community service.

Cooke said she recognized his remorse and the significance of his help. She also recognized that he was a vulnerable man who had gone through financial difficulty, a divorce and the death of his parents when he decided to participate in what appeared to be a grant scheme to rip off the federal government. It was really an FBI-orchestrated sting.

Cooke, known for her folksy expressions, said the “wheels fell off the bus” in describing Candia’s dire situation. Before that, “I don’t think this was anything you were capable of or thought you would do,” the judge told him.

Candia, who was once known as a likable lobbyist in political circles from Miami-Dade to Tallahassee, could have faced between three and four years in prison for his convictions on a pair of honest services fraud conspiracies.

Both his defense lawyer William Barzee and prosecutors Jared Dwyer and Bob Senior recommended that he receive substantial credit for helping the undercover corruption probe and that the judge should consider what they described as his “minor role” in the overall criminal activity between fall 2011 and summer 2013.

Dwyer explained the challenge of public corruption investigations and the rarity of cooperation such as Candia’s.

“Mr. Candia, from the day he was approached, told everything he knew,” Dwyer said, pointing out that after he was turned by FBI agents, he wore a wire and later testified before the grand jury and at trial.

“He was approached in a very vulnerable, broken state,” Candia’s defense attorney, Barzee, told the judge. “This is really a story about redemption.”

Cooke knew the details of the corruption investigation because she presided over the summer trial of suspended Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi, who was acquitted of bribery charges. Candia, who admitted that he had lied to prosecutors about one piece of evidence involving Pizzi, was the government’s star witness.

The informant who had roped Candia into the FBI-directed grant scheme was Michael Kesti, a Palmetto Bay lobbyist. Kesti, who would be paid $114,000 in salary and expenses for his role, introduced Candia to a pair of undercover agents who posed as crooked Chicago businessmen. They all tried to lure dozens of local politicians into supporting a “bogus” federal grant program meant only to line their pockets — with Candia eventually becoming a target of the FBI sting operation.

Kesti, who did not testify at Pizzi’s trial, told the Miami Herald that Candia gave him and the undercover agents a list of 25 local officials that he thought might go for the scheme.

After Thursday’s sentencing, Pizzi called Candia’s deal an “outrage.”

“After three years and millions of tax dollars spent, lying lobbyist Michael Kesti is doing talk shows and lying lobbyist Richard Candia is home watching football games,” Pizzi said in an emailed statement. “These are two lobbyists who lied to and wanted to corrupt every city in the state in order to make money. One got a big paycheck by conning the government, and the other, Candia, a free pass. This is how this operation ended.”

Kesti took umbrage with Pizzi’s comments, saying in an emailed response that “public corruption is a cancer on our society. It ruins the democratic process established in our county.”

Kesti also said the suspended mayor’s accusation that he lied as an FBI informant was absurd because he was working for the federal government. “You would assume that he would have contacted the police or FBI if he thought I or anyone else was lying or breaking the law in any way,” Kesti said.

When he pleaded guilty in May, Candia admitted that he played a crucial role in recruiting Pizzi and Sweetwater Mayor Manny Maroño into the sham federal grant scheme. Maroño’s right-hand man, Jorge Luis Forte, also was snared in the undercover probe.

Candia was charged in one conspiracy case with Pizzi, and in another with Maroño and Forte in August 2013 — in what was considered among Miami-Dade’s biggest corruption busts in years.

Maroño and Forte pleaded guilty to fraud charges entailing $60,000 in bribe payments for the Sweetwater grant deals. The former political allies were sentenced to about 31/2 years and one year, respectively. Forte already has completed his term.

For his part, Candia allegedly received at least $16,000 in bribes for the Sweetwater grant deals. He also received $500 for arranging Pizzi’s first meeting with FBI undercover agents. The lobbyist already repaid all that money to the U.S. government.

In August, Pizzi was acquitted of accepting $6,750 in cash and check donations for his support of purported federal grant deals in Miami Lakes and Medley, where he worked as the town attorney.

Among the alleged bribes: Candia — after he was flipped by FBI agents in June 2013 — wore a wire when he went to Pizzi’s Medley Town Hall office and gave him $3,000 in a storage closet for backing the Miami Lakes grant application.

But Pizzi’s defense attorneys convinced jurors that the mayor accepted that cash only to reimburse himself for a personal expense on behalf of a political action committee in Miami Lakes.