A former business partner of convicted Sweetwater Mayor Manny Maroño was sentenced to almost three years in prison on Thursday for paying thousands of dollars in bribes to Miami police aides in exchange for tow-job referrals.
Robert Muriedas pleaded guilty in May as part of an FBI investigation into alleged corruption among towing operators, drivers, body shops and certain law enforcement agencies, including the Miami Police Department.
The former police service aides, Keri Dixon and Aristides Paulino, pleaded guilty to pocketing at least $20,000 and $35,000 in bribes, respectively, between 2011 and 2014, according to court records. Paulino received a 30-month prison term, and Dixon got 29 months.
Four tow-truck drivers, including ringleader Jesus Tello, also pleaded guilty. Tello was sentenced to 32 months on Thursday. Two other drivers, Reinaldo Martin Cruz and Ronald Alfaro, were imprisoned for 29 months. The fourth driver, Michael Perez, is awaiting sentencing in October.
“Given everything that was presented, the judge was fair and reasonable,” said defense attorney Jose “Pepe” Herrera, who represented Paulino at Thursday’s sentencing hearing before U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke.
Last year, investigators began focusing on Muriedas, who had acquired a towing company called Southland from then-Sweetwater Mayor Maroño in 2009 and was involved with him as a partner in other businesses. In an unrelated case, Maroño pleaded guilty to receiving kickbacks in a government contract case in 2013 and is serving a nearly 3 1/2-year prison sentence.
In his plea agreement, Muriedas admitted that he paid thousands of dollars in bribes to the two Miami public service aides in return for tow-job referrals that benefited Southland and affiliated auto body shops, according to court records.
He made the illegal payments through the four convicted tow-truck drivers, including Tello, who worked for Southland, among other “pirate” towing companies, and played the role of middleman.
Investigators say this is how the scheme worked: The public-service aides informed the pirate towing operators of traffic accidents instead of going through police dispatchers, according to an FBI affidavit. The tow-truck operators, which were supposed to be picked on a rotational basis under contracts with the city, used the insider information to beat other towing companies to the accident scenes.
The pirate towing operators — sometimes along with the city’s aides, Paulino and Dixon, present — pressured the stranded car drivers to have their vehicles towed to certain body shops. They, in turn, boosted damages for fraudulent insurance claims, according to the affidavit filed by FBI Special Agent Donald Morin. The body shops then shared some of the profits with the tow-truck drivers.
In court, Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony Lacosta argued that the conspiracy offense not only involved the theft of money, but it also denied the public of “honest services” owed by police department employees.
“Paulino and Dixon provided access to confidential information, access to law enforcement databases, access to accident scenes, and made false entries in police reports to keep the scheme going,” Lacosta wrote in a court filing.
“In turn, the drivers and Muriedas paid bribes directly or indirectly to the public officials, solicited business to which they were not entitled from stranded motorists, [and] steered those stranded drivers to auto collision repair centers that paid cash kickbacks.”
The FBI investigation is now zeroing on body shops that did business with Muriedas’ towing company.