Was Miami-Dade lobbyist a ‘patriot’ or ‘snitch’ in FBI sting of local politicians?

When FBI agents cast a real-life lobbyist in an ambitious undercover sting targeting public corruption in Miami-Dade, they chose a seemingly unlikely lead actor, a B-lister from Palmetto Bay.

Michael Kesti kept a low profile at county hall and had practically no contacts in the dominant Hispanic political community. But agents trusted him, and Kesti knew how to play the game of peddling access to influential politicians.

He also was willing to break ranks with his lobbying brethren, unheard of in a county with a long history of insider deals and graft.

Kesti, in a recent interview with the Miami Herald, said he agreed to play the part as his “patriotic duty” to root out what he sees as systemic corruption in local government.

“I believe in our country and the values we have,” Kesti said. “I know it sounds like I’m preaching, but that’s how I was brought up.”

Others — including one of the mayors he helped get indicted last year — describe him in less flattering terms, starting with “paid snitch.” The FBI paid Kesti $114,000 over three years for his time and expenses on the corruption sting and several other operations, including providing him with a leased BMW.

In the end, Kesti’s star turn as an FBI informant code-named “Stingray” produced the unprecedented prosecutions of four mayors and lobbyists, resulting in three convictions and one acquittal.

The biggest name — suspended Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi — was found not guilty of bribery charges last month.

But three others pleaded guilty, with two going to prison last year for accepting bribes: former Sweetwater Mayor Manuel Maroño and his right-hand man, lobbyist Jorge Forte. Lobbyist Richard Candia, who testified for the prosecution at Pizzi’s trial, faces sentencing later this month.

Kesti, 53, who cultivated Candia for the FBI as a means to gain access to local politicians, is viewed as a turncoat by some in Miami-Dade’s deep pool of lobbyists. He says he couldn’t care less and would do it again.

“They give lobbyists a bad name,” said Kesti, who spoke with the Miami Herald and news partner CBS4 after Pizzi’s acquittal last month. “If you’re part of a club that breaks the law, I don’t want to be part of that club.”

The FBI operation — dubbed “Miami Hustle” — clearly added to South Florida’s reputation for shady deal-making.

But Rodney Barreto, a prominent businessman and longtime Miami-Dade lobbyist, took issue with Kesti’s “broad-brush” view of rampant corruption in government.

“It reminds us that there are bad actors in every profession,” Barreto said. “It often reminds me of when a policeman gets arrested for breaking the law — it doesn’t mean the whole police force is corrupt.”

Barreto also questioned whether Kesti really had “first-hand” knowledge of corruption or if the FBI had simply cast a wide net. “Was this such a wide net that he came up lucky to find something in the bottom?” he said.

And Pizzi, who has sued Gov. Rick Scott because he refused to revoke his suspension as Miami Lakes mayor after his acquittal, expressed nothing but contempt.

“Michael Kesti had no information or concern about corruption and is a two-bit con man and paid snitch,” Pizzi told the Herald. “His only motivation was to put money in his pocket in exchange for lying to innocent people and destroying their lives for his own financial benefit.”

Kesti, dressed in a light-gray suit, sky-blue shirt and patterned tie during the interview, says he is still working as a lobbyist — but not as much as he did before he was outed as an FBI informant after Pizzi’s arrest in August 2013. Instead, Kesti has been working more as a consultant in healthcare, his area of professional expertise.

Like most people in South Florida, Kesti was from somewhere else — born in New York but growing up mostly in Houston and Pennsylvania.

After obtaining an MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, Kesti became an executive for a Philadelphia home healthcare company, a career that eventually brought him on business trips to South Florida in the 1990s. After going through a divorce and a health scare with meningitis, Kesti relocated here to run another healthcare business. A decade ago, he started gravitating to the world of consulting and lobbying.

Although he has never been an A-list lobbyist in Miami-Dade government, Kesti was well known in Palmetto Bay, Homestead and other cities at the county’s south end.

He has hatched a series of businesses over the years, from raising money for a Wynwood rum distillery to working in government and public relations for a variety of small clients, including a dry-cleaning service and a flea market. Kesti also helped a South Miami-Dade chain of healthcare clinics apply for federal grants — a skill that would come in handy when he agreed to assist the FBI in its sting operation against Pizzi, Maroño and others.

Kesti first approached the FBI after serving in 2007-08 as executive director of the Miami Beach Health Foundation, the nonprofit fund-raising arm of the Miami Beach Community Health Center. Kesti was also a consultant to the center. He detected financial irregularities and brought them to the FBI’s attention. In 2013, Kathryn Abbate, the chief executive officer, pleaded guilty to stealing $6 million from the federally funded facility, a crime fueled partly by her gambling addiction.

Kesti stayed in touch with agents during that case, suggesting he also could be of help on public corruption matters. He and agents discussed the influence of lobbyists and the practices of bid rigging and kickbacks — but with no particular targets in mind at first.

“If you see something unusual, give us a ring,” Kesti recalled agents telling him.

Eventually, Kesti and his handlers in the FBI’s anti-corruption squad began brainstorming about an undercover operation entailing an actual federal program called AmeriCorps — the same program Kesti had tapped to help Community Health of South Florida land millions of dollars in grants.

To set up the sting, Kesti would make introductions to two FBI undercover agents posing as crooked businessmen. They would ask politicians to apply for economic development grants from AmeriCorps — with the real goal of grabbing money for themselves.

Kesti’s role was to vouch that the program and agents were legit, telling potential targets the federal money could stimulate job growth in their communities.

Kesti wore a wire, though he won’t reveal where on his body, during the three-year investigation of Pizzi, Maroño and dozens of other local political leaders and lobbyists.

“Wearing a wire was nerve-racking at first, but I got used to it,” Kesti said. “You could search me, but you’d never find it.”

In 2011, Kesti approached Candia, a lobbyist well known from Miami-Dade to Tallahassee. Kesti, who had worked with Candia on an energy project in several municipalities, considered him a “likable guy” and didn’t know of any corruption in his past.

But Kesti said Candia, who would reveal that he was having financial troubles, eventually bought into the grant scheme. Kesti also said that Candia, through his contacts in the Florida League of Cities, gave him a list of about 25 politicians, officials and lobbyists who might go for it, too. Candia specifically mentioned Maroño and Pizzi. Kesti said he had met them only a few times and had never done business in their small towns.

Kesti said he saw himself as a “middle man” for Candia, who became a target of the probe. Together, they made political connections for the two agents pretending to be executives of a Chicago-based grant writing company, Sunshine Universal.

“I brought people to the dance floor, and they picked who they wanted to dance with,” Kesti said of his relationship with the FBI. “I was on a need-to-know basis, and I didn’t question them. And that’s why I was useful to them.”

Kesti played a prominent role in landing Candia to lure Pizzi into the grant scheme. Kesti’s part was smaller in the probe of Maroño, who collaborated with Candia and relied on his longtime friend, Forte, as his “bagman” with the undercover agents. Maroño and Forte accepted $60,000 in bribes from them.

Kesti first met with Pizzi, Candia and the two agents at Miami Lakes Town Hall in September 2011. They would later dine at expensive restaurants, such as Shula’s in Miami Lakes and Smith & Wollensky in Miami Beach, as they discussed the grant scheme.

“I couldn’t drive a Ford Fiesta and take them to Taco Bell,” said Kesti, who leased an FBI-paid BMW for his undercover wheels.

Initially, Pizzi was on board, thinking the grant program would help Miami Lakes and Medley, where he worked as the town attorney. But he would later express misgivings to Kesti about getting involved after he was told by undercover agents that the program was “bogus” — a “money grab” for all of them.

However, after his re-election to a second mayoral term in November 2012, Pizzi accepted three alleged bribes totaling $6,000 in cash for his official support of the grant applications in Miami Lakes and Medley, according to the FBI.

But Pizzi’s defense attorneys blunted those bribery accusations by showing that the Miami Lakes mayor either accepted the money for campaign reimbursements or did not actually pocket the cash.

Pizzi’s attorneys wanted to cross-examine Kesti as a witness, hoping to show that he misled the FBI about their client and that he wasted the bureau’s money on an ill-conceived entrapment operation. But they never got the chance.

Prosecutors chose not to put Kesti on the witness stand, introducing only his comments on undercover recordings as evidence.

Kesti said that, if asked by the U.S. attorney’s office, he was willing to testify at Pizzi’s trial. He said he was “obviously shocked and disappointed” when 12 federal jurors sided unanimously with the defense.

Pizzi considers his acquittal vindication and called Kesti a “coward” for not testifying.

“He didn’t fight corruption,” Pizzi said. “He tried to create corruption to make money.”