Mike “Paranoid” Pizzi and Manny “Macho” Maroño star in Miami-Dade’s newest crime drama.
But Pizzi and Maroño aren’t actors; they’re the mayors of Miami Lakes and Sweetwater who were busted last week in a federal grant-fraud scheme with two lobbyists.
It was all an FBI production, a sting, a reminder that sometimes low, mean suspicions about politics here might be well-founded.
Pizzi — who has issued a press statement declaring his innocence — and Maroño will likely call it all a set-up. Maybe entrapment. Fiction.
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Indeed, the criminal complaints make for pulpy summer reading. There are undercover FBI agents, secret recordings, two lobbyists carrying cash payoffs, a third lobbyist informant and two mayors allegedly representing different styles of engaging in graft.
Maroño is portrayed as the bold, hungry guy.
Pizzi appears cagey, conflicted. As a result, he has a more-defensible case than Maroño.
But in both cases, pride precedes the fall.
"I didn't get where I am being stupid,” Pizzi said at one point.
“I don't do anything without considering every aspect, economics, ethical, political,” he said. “If I say yes, it means I have examined every conceivable angle of this thing."
Pizzi ultimately missed one “angle:” he was talking to undercover FBI agents posing as sleazy Chicago businessmen running a fictitious grant-application company, Sunshine Universal.
As part of the scheme, the mayors allegedly lied about Sunshine’s work (it produced none) in a brief telephone survey with what they thought was a federal-grant administrator, AmeriCorps (it was actually an undercover FBI agent).
Maroño went a step further, the FBI said, and tried to use his connections as head of the Florida League of Cities to recruit other corrupt mayors into the scheme. Maroño boasted about how he’d identify other dirty mayors and what he’d tell them when they took the AmeriCorps survey.
“You answered questions knowing that you're f---ing lying, but you gotta be able to have that charisma, to be able to pull it off, to bulls--t,” Maroño told the undercover agents.
But Maroño wasn’t all swagger. He doesn’t come out and say he wants a bribe. He allegedly leaves that up to his go-between, Jorge Luis Forte.
In one phone call, recorded by the FBI, an undercover agent asks about “the package I gave Jorge.”
Maroño: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Later, Forte tells another undercover agent that the mayor “is not going to acknowledge anything of that sort on the phone.”
Another lobbyist, Rich Candia, says as much in yet another conversation where he adds that Maroño also won’t discuss scams by text message, either.
Candia was the common tie between the two mayors, who acted independently of each other in the cities they represent. A confidential informant, Michael Kesti, identified Candia as someone who had access to corrupt pols.
In turn, Candia early on told the agents Maroño was someone who’s “not gonna be shy” about asking for payoffs.
Indeed Maroño and Forte allegedly took far more ($60,000) than Pizzi ($6,750). Candia got $5,500 before agents approached him June 25 to become a cooperating defendant. He then agreed to secretly record Pizzi before delivering an alleged $3,000 payout.
Candia and the agents suggest Pizzi was worried about eavesdroppers, and therefore pulled Candia into a closet before taking the money. In a prior incident, Pizzi allegedly took a Ziploc bag stuffed with cash and two cigars at a pool hall.
Unlike Maroño, Pizzi took some time before moving ahead with the alleged scheme.
Pizzi got spooked in Feb. 29, 2012, when it seemed as if the undercover agents were secretly recording him. Pizzi appeared to not speak with the agents until December.
Throughout, Pizzi was careful and avoided making incriminating statements. When he asked for campaign contributions, he specified there was no quid-pro-quo. He kept insisting that he wanted the grant deal only because it would benefit the city.
The agent, perhaps sensing Pizzi’s nerves months before, chalked it up to a “miscommunication or a misunderstanding.”
“No we're fine," Pizzi allegedly said. "I'm a man of very few words.”
But along with Maroño, Pizzi still said and did enough to earn a leading role in Miami-Dade's ongoing telenovela of sleaze.