Crime

Acquitted Pizzi sues — again — to regain mayor’s seat in Miami Lakes

Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi, flanked by his attorneys Benedict Kuehne and Ed Shohat, reacts outside the Miami federal courthouse in August after being found not guilty of accepting payoffs.
Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi, flanked by his attorneys Benedict Kuehne and Ed Shohat, reacts outside the Miami federal courthouse in August after being found not guilty of accepting payoffs. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

When suspended Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi was found not guilty of bribery charges in August, he dashed to Town Hall to reclaim his office.

The clerk’s staff had already put his picture back on the lobby wall, his nameplate on the council dais and his mayoral desk in order.

“Everything was the same as it was, as if I’d never been arrested,” Pizzi recalled Tuesday.

But five months since his federal acquittal, the two-term mayor is still fighting to fill his seat.

Just before Christmas, Gov. Rick Scott was forced by the Florida Supreme Court to revoke Pizzi's suspension, which he had refused to do — sparking a political standoff at Town Hall. After successfully suing the governor, Pizzi now is heading to Miami-Dade Circuit Court to urge a judge to reinstate him and remove his nemesis, Wayne Slaton. He won the mayor's office in a special election last October, but won’t leave.

Pizzi, 52, who was serving his second four-year term as mayor when he was arrested in August 2013, says he’s entitled to his old job under Florida law.

Yet despite “the revocation of Mayor Pizzi's suspension, the town of Miami Lakes refused to reinstate [him] as mayor and continues to persist in that refusal, prompting this litigation,” says his complaint, filed Tuesday. “Wayne Slaton refuses to vacate the office of mayor, and continues to purport to discharge the duties and responsibilities of the mayor.”

City officials, including Slaton, are expected to fight Pizzi’s suit.

“We reserve the right to comment until he files and serves us with the lawsuit,” Miami Lakes Town Attorney Raul Gastesi said late Tuesday.

Pizzi’s legal team, led by Miami attorney Ben Kuehne, said there is nothing in the town charter to trump state law on his reinstatement. His second term would run through 2016.

“If the municipal official is acquitted...then the governor shall forthwith revoke the suspension and restore such municipal official to office,” the key Florida statute says.

Since Pizzi’s team only asked the state Supreme Court to order the governor to revoke his suspension, Kuehne is asking a Miami-Dade circuit judge to restore Pizzi to the mayor’s seat, along with back pay and benefits.

The governor’s position was dramatically at odds with the decision he made in August 2011, when he quickly revoked the suspension of Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones.

The commissioner had been suspended by Gov. Charlie Crist two years earlier after she was charged with corruption, and someone else was elected to her seat. Immediately after Spence-Jones was cleared, Scott issued an executive order clearing her to return.

She came back, filled out her term, and collected more than $200,000 in back pay and benefits.

The charters of both Miami and Miami Lakes are similar. They both say if an elected official leaves office for more than six months, a special election must be held to occupy the seat. And both charters are quiet when it comes to reinstating an officer who has been cleared or acquitted of criminal charges and has been absent more than six months.

In short, state law should prevail and Pizzi, an attorney who crushed Slaton in the 2012 mayoral election, should be in office again, his lawyers claim.

And they are not alone in that view.

At the time of Pizzi's arrest on charges of accepting $6,750 in bribes from FBI undercover agents, the town attorney in Miami Lakes made it clear that he would return as mayor if he were acquitted.

In a special meeting on Aug. 8, 2013, then-Town Attorney Steve Geller warned council members that if they were to run for Pizzi's seat and win, they might lose it later.

“I would remind you that if you have three years remaining on your seat and you give your seat to run for the position of mayor, and Mayor Pizzi ends up being found not guilty, or charges [are] dropped or anything, then you lose the seat,” Geller said.

“If you have been elected to mayor, you lose that seat because he would automatically get it back, and you would not get back your old commission seat.”

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