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.
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
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