Lobbyist Forte wasn’t shy about being Sweetwater Mayor Maroño’s ‘right-hand man’

Except for a stint as manager of tiny North Bay Village, lobbyist and consultant Jorge Forte stayed pretty much under the public radar.

But that didn’t stop him from handily riding the coattails of rising politico and Sweetwater Mayor Manny Maroño, Forte’s longtime friend and business partner. Forte leveraged the relationship to push through city legislation, get government contracts — and haul in tens of thousands of dollars in bribes from undercover FBI agents, prosecutors alleged last week.

Maroño was arrested Aug. 6. A day later, Forte, his confidant and alleged bagman, was charged. Both are accused of conspiring to commit extortion for allegedly accepting $60,000 in kickbacks for championing “bogus” grant applications in Sweetwater, and trying to lure other Florida cities into the scheme.

The complaint filed by the FBI portrays Forte, 41, as the Maroño’s “front man” — the buffer who protected the mayor, spoke for the mayor and collected the mayor’s money starting in the fall of 2011.

In March 2012, during a secretly recorded meeting at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, the lobbyist warned undercover FBI agents posing as crooked Chicago businessmen that they had to go through him to get to Maroño.

“In Miami-Dade County, you want something from him, you don’t call him, you call me . . . It’s just the way it works,” Forte said. Maroño later referred to his sidekick as his “right-hand man.”

In April 2012, when an agent asked Forte how payments should be handled, Forte agreed to accept $20,000 cash broken into two installments of $6,600 and one of $6,800. Forte said he was familiar with U.S. tax law — an apparent reference to keeping the payments under $10,000 to avoid bank-reporting requirements. He called the cash “a little play money.”

The same month, according to the charges, Forte even traveled to Chicago to collect a final kickback payment for him and Maroño, prosecutors said.

Business acquaintances and public records paint Forte as a go-getter who wasn’t shy about using his 25-year friendship with Maroño to boost his career and his bank account. It helped him land chief-of-staff positions with elected leaders and a job as a city manager. But with few exceptions, he is unknown outside of West Miami-Dade.

“I’m confident I never met him,” prominent lobbyist Eston “Dusty” Melton said. “If there’s a farm league in the lobbyist industry hereabouts, I guess he was playing Triple-A ball.”

Forte was registered to lobby in Tallahassee — but only before the executive branch, not the legislative branch, where most lobbyists work. He first registered in 2011, after the election of Gov. Rick Scott. Maroño was an early Scott supporter.

Forte made most of his business connections through the Florida League of Cities, which Maroño led as president this past year until his arrest. Both Forte and Maroño tried, but failed, to get administrators and elected officials from other cities to go along with the feds’ phony grant scheme.

League of Cities members from Longwood, just north of Orlando, to Pembroke Pines to Monroe County say Forte tried to sell them on the grant scheme, sending them copies of the same resolution passed in Sweetwater — which he wrote — that OK’d the grant proposal.

“They said, ‘Take a look at this and get back.’ I never did. We never spoke about it again,” said Monroe County Administrator Roman Gastesi. “It was described as an economic development thing.”

The criminal complaint contends Forte and Maroño arranged to collect 12 percent of any money disbursed for the first 10 cities they roped in, and 25 percent for each city after that. Not a single city took the bait — though the men received $20,000 from the undercover agents for those referrals as part of their total take.

One public official who asked not to be identified said that when Forte approached a city for a contract, “He wasn’t shy about his relationship with Maroño.”

Maroño is the protégé of Miami-Dade County Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz, a popular, former Sweetwater mayor. Appointed to Diaz’s mayoral slot in 2002 when Diaz moved on to County Hall, Maroño has twice been reelected mayor. He has gained considerable local power over the past three years by touting his access to the Republican governor.

Forte’s public-service career began in 2002, when after a few white-collar jobs he followed Maroño to Sweetwater to become the city’s grants coordinator, and then the mayor’s chief of staff. He eventually teamed up with the mayor to form a statewide consulting business called 7 Strategies, a play on Gov. Scott’s campaign pledge to use a seven-step plan to create 700,000 jobs.

Commissioner Diaz did not respond to several requests for interviews. Forte could not be reached for comment. His attorney, David Weinstein, declined to answer questions about the charges.

Forte attended South Miami Senior High School, received a GED, then worked at an outsourcing company and with CompUSA, his application for North Bay Village manager shows. Forte later attended Florida International University and received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Phoenix.

In Sweetwater, Forte made up to $80,000 a year. His friend, the mayor, credited him with helping obtain federal money to relieve the city’s chronic flooding woes.

In 2006, after receiving a master’s degree in business administration from Nova Southeastern University, Forte was named North Bay Village manager, overseeing all city employees and departments in a job that that paid $150,000 a year.

One of Forte’s references on the application was Jennifer Muñoz-Maroño, the mayor’s wife, who directs special projects for Sweetwater. Forte won council approval over a dozen other candidates — several highly qualified — despite a less-than-stellar résumé.

Joe Geller, the North Bay Village mayor at the time, was the only member of the five-person council to vote against hiring Forte, a man he called “bright, pleasant and generally well-liked.”

Geller said everyone knew Forte and Maroño were close. Still, he couldn’t recall why council members were so enthralled with Forte, calling the job “a step up from what he’d done before.”

Forte, who is married with three children, left the village after two years. His personnel file does not explain why. Geller said his recollection is that Forte simply said he was moving on.

County Commissioner Sally Heyman, who keeps an eye on the municipalities within her district, said there was so much upheaval in North Bay Village during Forte’s tenure that managers came and went.

“That was a period of time when they couldn’t get out of their own way,” she said.

Then it was on to Doral at the end of 2008, when Forte was hired as a procurement consultant to help craft contract language. He spent about 18 months working out of a small, closet-like office on the third floor of City Hall. Doral Commissioner Sandra Ruiz said Forte was often at the side of Maroño during League of Cities functions, or at Dade Days in Tallahassee.

“It was not unusual to see him with [Maroño]. And it was not unusual to see him at City Hall in Doral,” she said. “I knew he was within those circles.”

Former Doral Mayor J.C. Bermudez said he noticed Forte more often at League of Cities functions than at City Hall.

“He wasn’t a guy you saw every day,” Bermudez said. “He’s a nice, likeable guy, not showy at all.”

Forte helped County Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo set up his transition staff after Bovo was elected in 2011. That paid off when the commissioner named him his chief of staff. The job lasted only nine months. Bovo said Forte left on his own.

“He offered his resignation and left in good standing, as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

Despite the departure, Forte was a busy man. That same year, state records show he started up two companies, 7 Strategies and Municipal Procurement Services, which consults on government contracts. Forte already ran another statewide consulting company called Realm Consulting, started in 2009.

Arnie Alonso, chief of staff to Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez, said Forte approached the city to offer consulting services, but was turned down.

Forte also signed contracts worth about $167,000 with the city of Doral for all three of his companies, as first reported by the blog Political Cortadito. They spanned from 2009 through March of this year.

In 2009 and 2010, Doral paid Forte’s Municipal Procurement almost $141,645 for handling contracts with city vendors, from a vehicle-towing service to a parks concession stand. His other two companies, 7 Strategies and Realm, made a combined $25,000 for working out an extended lease on a Doral property where a new police station had been planned.

Doral City Manager Joe Carollo said Forte “has no present contracts with the city.”

On June 20, Forte inked a $2,000-a-month, no-bid deal with Sweetwater, the city where he got his first taste of public service. The resolution, which passed unanimously, said Mayor Maroño had “determined there is a need” to hire Forte to oversee the construction of a new police station.

On Thursday, Sweetwater Communications Director Michelle Hammontree-Garcia said recently installed Mayor Jose M. Diaz — no relation to the county commissioner — intends terminate that contract.

“We’re doing an audit of his contracts,” she said. “They’re going to suspend them.”

Forte also capitalized on his political contacts in Broward County. He was hired briefly this year as a $187-an-hour consultant at the Broward Sheriff’s Office, after supporting Sheriff Scott Israel in last fall’s election. Israel was police chief in North Bay Village when Forte was the city manager.

Forte’s job, according to the Sun Sentinel, was to analyze whether BSO should continue to lease vehicles or use surplus cruisers in the Child Protective Investigations Section.

On Feb. 13, two days after he was asked to start that analysis, BSO put out a bid for a three-year lease contract. But BSO still paid Forte $15,000 for his report, issued a month later.

Miami Herald staff writers Patricia Mazzei and Jay Weaver, and El Nuevo Herald staff writer Enrique Flor, contributed to this report.

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