News Column

FBI Arrests Miami-area Mayors on Bribe Charges

August 7, 2013
bribe

FBI agents Tuesday arrested the mayors of Miami Lakes and Sweetwater on bribery charges related to government contracts in their towns. Two lobbyists also were arrested.

Agents arrested Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi and Sweetwater Mayor Manuel "Manny" Marono at their City Hall offices.

Pizzi and Marono made their first appearances in Miami federal court Tuesday, on a charge of conspiracy to commit extortion. Pizzi's bond was set at $100,000, Marono's at $250,000.

Also arrested on the same charge were lobbyists Jorge Forte, the former manager of North Bay Village, and Richard Candia. They are scheduled to surrender to authorities Wednesday.

All four men were charged with participating in a kickback and bribery scheme in connection with purported federal grants; Marono allegedly acted as mayor of Sweetwater, and Pizzi allegedly acted as the mayor of Miami Lakes and the town attorney for the Town of Medley.

Marono is accused of breaking the law with Forte and Candia. Pizzi is accused of breaking the law with Candia, a lobbyist with the Becker & Poliakoff law firm. Candia was chief of staff for state Sen. Mario Diaz-Balart in the mid-1990s.

Pizzi, who is serving his second term as mayor, has been in the public eye for years. He is an attorney and former federal probation officer who once worked for a high-profile criminal defense law firm in Miami and served as a Miami Lakes councilman before running successfully for town mayor in 2008. He was reelected last year.

Miami Lakes Vice Mayor Ceasar Mestre was in Pizzi's office at City Hall around 10 a.m. Tuesday morning.

"I had just walked into his office and he was writing an email," Mestre said. "I sat down in front of him and the door to his office opened abruptly. There was no knock. It just opened and a bunch of federal agents walked in and announced who they were." Pizzi then turned to the agents and greeted them: "Nice to see you gentlemen, how can I help you?"

Mestre was asked to leave the room. He waited outside of Pizzi's office for about five minutes, when the door opened. Pizzi was in handcuffs. On his way out the door, Pizzi asked Mestre to call certain people to let them know what was going on, including a local attorney and someone he described as a "significant woman" in his life.

Later in the day, federal agents interviewed Mestre.

"Having had the conversation I just had with federal agents .... I am very surprised," Mestre said. "I told them that Michael doesn't seem like the type of person who is driven by greed and money. He lives a plain lifestyle. He lives in a small townhouse and drove an old car until he got the Kia."

In 2012, Pizzi easily defeated challenger Wayne Slaton, who had served as Miami Lakes' first mayor after its incorporation in 2000. The Pizzi-Slaton mayoral showdown was particularly nasty for Miami Lakes, a normally below-the-radar community that was originally home to the Graham family's dairy farm.

Slaton said Tuesday the town has changed.

"Miami Lakes was considered a jewel that was sort of set apart ... untouched, community-oriented. No rough stuff," he said.

Now?

"It's embarrassing."

Previously, Pizzi drew attention to himself by helping lead the effort to recall a political nemesis, Miami-Dade Commissioner Natacha Seijas, in 2011. She was voted out of office that year along with County Mayor Carlos Alvarez in a special recall election.

In Miami Lakes City Hall, employees were tight-lipped on Tuesday morning.

Pizzi's office door was open around noon Tuesday.

Inside his office, Pizzi's computer was still on. A pencil rested on a sheet of computer paper, where a hand-written noted was scrawled. Also on his desk: various papers, a red folder, a printed-out email. On the corner of the desk was a picture of Pizzi in a blue athletic shirt, fists raised. He was scheduled to fight the mayor of Hialeah in a charity match Sept 6.

A man and woman came to the mayor's office to make an appointment with him. When told he had been arrested, the woman's jaw dropped. The two didn't want to comment, only saying they had never before met Pizzi.

A few minutes later, the window on the door leading into the mayor's office had been blocked. A sheet of brown paper had been taped over it. The door was locked.

Miami Lakes residents had mixed reaction to Pizzi's arrest.

"I am speechless," said Hope Reynolds, 59. "He is always saying things have to be done right and there is always this feeling that he would not be involved in anything that is wrong."

She said she is giving the mayor the benefit of the doubt and will rely on the courts to determine his guilt or innocence.

Others, however, were not shocked.

"There has always been suspicions but I am assuming the FBI has more concrete evidence,'' said Claudia Luces, 41. "I guess we will see what the FBI will bring out.''

Meanwhile, town council members were digesting the news.

"All I know is what I have been reading in the paper," said Councilman Nelson Hernandez. "I am ready to take leadership with my colleagues on the council to move forward and past this as soon as possible. Our residents want us to represent them and now, in times like these, we have to take leadership."

In Sweetwater, people also expressed shock about the mayor's arrest.

Marono, a member of the Sweetwater City Commission since 1995, was elected mayor in 2003.

Like Pizzi, Marono also has a prominent profile for a small-town official. He is currently serving as president of the Florida League of Cities, with a membership of more than 400 cities, towns and villages in the state. In 2011, Marono also played a role on Gov. Rick Scott's transition team. That year, Marono and Forte launched a public affairs and business development firm, 7 Strategies.

Forte and Marono, who had known each other since high school, named the company in a reference to Scott's seven-step plan to create 700,000 jobs in seven years. 7 Strategies is focused on strategies that forge "better ties" between clients and the public sector, the partners told The South Florida Business Journal in 2011. It also lobbies on behalf of some clients.

Marono touted his early support of the governor as a value for potential clients. He said his company would vet clients to make sure their agenda is "in line with the governor's strategy and is not going to detract from that message."

"We know how local government works, how the state works, how the county works and how the governor works -- which is the most important part," Marono told the Business Journal. "We know how the governor works."

A spokeswoman for the Republican governor said Scott will suspend both mayors from office while they await trial.

In a statement after the arrests, Scott said: "This is disappointing. ... While we wait to see the evidence, the fact remains that elected officials must be held to the highest standard.''

Meanwhile, Sweetwater Councilwoman Isolina Marono, the mayor's mother, maintained her son's innocence.

"It's not true," she told reporters at Sweetwater City Hall. "Whatever they are saying is not true ... He needs to clear this up. He'll clear it up.''

Later Tuesday, Marono's father, also named Manuel, said he hadn't spoken to his son but defended his son's character and tenure.

"I raised him, and I raised him well,'' he said. "This city was a dump. Look around at what he's done.''

Vice Mayor and Commission President Jose Diaz became acting mayor, in accordance with the city charter. Sweetwater has a strong-mayor form of government.

Diaz met with city department heads early Tuesday afternoon. He told reporters outside City Hall he was "surprised and saddened'' by the news, speaking highly of Marono's tenure as mayor.

"The city has progressed, not just in size, but in quality,'' he said.

Tears rolled down from under Councilman Manuel Duasso's sunglasses as he left City Hall on Tuesday. A longtime councilman and city employee, he said he felt for the city and its people.

"I feel what happens to this city,'' he said.

Miami Herald reporters Joey Flechas, Christina Veiga and Paradise Afshar contributed to this report.

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