When there’s no smoking gun

Why can’t political corruption prosecutors win convictions in South Florida? The U.S. Attorney’s office is 0-2 in recent months, failing to win guilty verdicts against mayors Michael Pizzi of Miami Lakes and Julio Robaina of Hialeah. Two big fish in the political corruption pool who are now swimming free.

They weren’t exactly proven innocent, but they were found not guilty. Will that happen again in coming months when two more indicted mayors — Lucie Tondreau of North Miami and Steve Bateman of Homestead — go on trial? Not-guilty verdicts could happen if juries, as in the previous cases, are reluctant to convict on anything less than smoking-gun, open-and-shut, slam-dunk proof of guilt.

So what, we are compelled to ask, is the problem? “The problem is not in our stars,” as Shakespeare so aptly put it, “but in ourselves.” Specifically, the problem in large part is in our juries. God bless these citizens good and true who serve, but are they representative of the larger society? And why are those who do serve so hesitant to convict when the evidence is strong and convincing, even if there’s no smoking gun?

In the Robaina case, when the clerk handed Judge Ursula Ungaro the note with their not-guilty verdict, her eyes widened and she scrunched up her face in disbelief before handing it back to be read aloud. Her expression told me (and others in the courtroom) that she felt the prosecution had met its burden and proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

From the time I spent in Ungaro’s courtroom I thought so, too. Although to be positive in the Robaina case you’d need to be a forensic accountant. Nobody on the jury was. Thei Robainas’ attorney, David Garvin (wife Raiza was also a defendant and cleverly also used Garvin), is an accountant as well as a lawyer, an expert in tax law who outgunned the prosecution.

Pizzi’s defense attorneys, led by the redoubtable Ed Shohat, were also excellent. The prosecutors weren’t chopped liver, but Shohat was able to consistently raise the specter of reasonable doubt. He had an excuse or explanation for every suspicious act, every sleazy meeting Pizzi took part in. Even the one where the FBI undercovers told Pizzi, after a lavish dinner at Smith & Wollensky, that they were crooks and their grant scheme was bogus. Pizzi told them he didn’t need to be paid, but did he then say he wouldn’t work with them anymore? Did he drop a dime on what he knew to be a criminal enterprise? Nope.

“Pizzi knew this was a corrupt scheme,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jed Dwyer told the jury at closing argument, “He knew that the people sitting across from him were willing to pay him money. He knew from the beginning it was a pay-to-play deal.” The jury evidently didn’t buy it.

Nor did they find it strange that Pizzi huddled in a closet in his city attorney’s office in Medley with Richard Candia, a friend and lobbyist who had been flipped by the FBI and was wearing a wire. He can be heard handing Pizzi $3,000 in cash from the guys at Sunshine Universal, the phony grant-writing company, and Pizzi clearly says, “OK, you did good.”

How could the jury ignore such an incriminating comment? In such an incriminating setting? A couple of jurors told the Herald that they were troubled by Pizzi’s actions, but didn’t think the government had presented enough evidence to convict.

And there’s the rub. Juries in political corruption trials want a smoking gun, unequivocal proof of guilt. But that usually exists only on TV crime shows and silly movies. Sophisticated, corrupt politicians act through go-betweens and use a bagman to deliver the loot.

The government laid out a strong, but mostly circumstantial case against Pizzi. The FBI investigation wasn’t glitch free. They rarely are. But in the end, Pizzi accepted $6,750 from Sunshine Universal, at least $6,500 of it in return for his promises to get the faux federal grants for Medley and Miami Lakes. Manny Maroño of Sweetwater accepted much more in the same scheme and was caught doing so on tape. He’s currently doing three years in prison. But there was no trial — Maroño pled out.

I don’t know the demographics of the juries that heard the Robaina and Pizzi cases. Perhaps there were some well-educated professional people among the housewives, unemployed and retirees who often make up juries. I do know that many professionals I personally know — doctors, dentists, CPAs, business executives — go to great lengths to avoid jury duty. That produces juries that are not one’s peers. It also produces not-guilty verdicts against pols charged with corruption.