Crime

Taxpayers could pay millions in legal fees for ex-Miami Lakes mayor acquitted of bribery

Michael Pizzi
Michael Pizzi rkoltun@elnuevoherald.com

Former Miami Lakes mayor Michael Pizzi, acquitted in a federal corruption case five years ago, may get taxpayers to pay his legal bills after all.

A Miami appeals court on Wednesday overturned a judge’s decision to quash Pizzi’s lawsuit against the town seeking at least $2.5 million to pay his defense attorneys’ bills.

The Third District Court of Appeals was careful to say it wasn’t ruling on the “ultimate merit, or lack of merit” of Pizzi’s claim that he deserves a full reimbursement. But the court said Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Mavel Ruiz was legally wrong to throw out the lawsuit in 2018.

The court found that Miami Lakes’ own policies supported Pizzi’s initial claim that the town was on the hook — although it had the right to question the “reasonableness of the fees amount sought.”

Pizzi on Wednesday called the decision a “home run” and said Miami Lakes needs to pay his lawyers before the bills escalate as he continues his legal battle against the town. He’s also seeking an addition $1 million to pay for the appeals.

“It’s time for the town to bring this to a conclusion and pay my legal fees,” Pizzi said.

Miami Lakes Town Attorney Raul Gastesi said in a statement that the town was “disappointed” in the decision but remained confident it would prevail.

So what happens now? Judge Ruiz will now have to hold more hearings, and potentially delve into the nitty-gritty of the legal bills — and the details of the FBI’s failed case against the politician.

“Mr. Pizzi must still prove that his inexplicable actions and extremely poor judgment were for a public purpose and serving the citizens of the Town of Miami Lakes,” Gastesi said, adding: “Mr. Pizzi was merely acting for his own personal gain.”

The FBI arrested Pizzi in August 2013 and accused him of accepting more than $6,000 in bribes, some of it in a paper bag delivered at the Billiard Club, his favorite watering hole in a strip mall in Miami Lakes. Undercover agents purportedly paid him the money in exchange for his mayoral support for a grants program, a sham one concocted as part of the sting.

The following year, a federal jury acquitted Pizzi. He was represented by high-profile defense lawers Ed Shohat and Ben Kuehne.

After a lengthy and costly court battle with the town and then-Gov. Rick Scott, he was reinstated as mayor of Miami Lakes. Voters, however, did not re-elect him in 2016. He has been fighting to have the city pick up his legal tab ever since.

  Comments