Corruption Charges against Three South Florida Mayors Brings One Guilty Plea

According to the Department of Justice, Florida led the nation with a staggering 781 convictions of public officials between the years 2000 and 2010. In the second decade of this century, the trend continues. A current example shows that between September and October of this year, three more local politicians were added to the list of those willing to let down their constituents by breaking the law.

In late August, the mayor of Homestead was arrested and accused of using his elected office to secure a secret consulting job as well as accepting a bribe from Community Health Care of South Florida Inc. The health care company was looking to build a clinic in the area according to the state attorney’s office for Miami-Dade. On Nov 1, further charges were filed against him when he was charged with seven election law violations. Former Mayor Steven Bateman, 58, was accused of misusing campaign funds according to state attorney spokesperson Terry Chavez. He pleaded not guilty to the charges and was released without bond.

Earlier that month, two other mayors of South Florida cities were charged by the government in ongoing corruption investigations. Florida Governor Rick Scott suspended all three of the mayors pending outcome of their criminal cases.

Michael A. Pizzi, 51, the mayor of Miami Lakes, and Manuel L. Maroño, 41, the mayor of Sweetwater and current president of the Florida League of Cities, were charged in two unrelated complaints concerning public corruption allegations along with two lobbyists of which one was connected to both of the mayors. The United States attorney’s office has accused them of involvement in bribery and kickback schemes relating to federal grants. The two lobbyists, Jorge L. Forte, 41, and Richard F. Candia, 49 both of Miami were named in the Maroño case and Candia was also named as part of the complaint involving Pizzi.

Ironically, the Florida League of Cities displays a June 8, 2012 article on their website that leads to a story about a newly formed advocacy group called Integrity Florida; “a nonprofit, nonpartisan group” that released a report showing that Florida led the nation in federal public corruption convictions through the years referenced above.

Carla Miller, an ethics officer and a former federal prosecutor stated “We bought the trifecta… It’s bad when three mayors get led out in handcuffs. What’s left of the public trust gets ground into little pieces.”

On November 13, former mayor Maroño and lobbyist Jorge L. Forte both pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud for their involvement in a plan to individually benefit through the use of the station of the mayor of Sweetwater which was held by Maroño. They were originally charged by way of Information with one count of conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud on October 17.
Forte and Maroño both face a maximum statutory sentence of 5-years of incarceration under the terms of the agreement. Sentencing is scheduled for January 23, 2014 and will be imposed by US District Judge William J. Zloch.

The guilty pleas were announced in a press release by Wifredo A. Ferrer, US Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, and Michael B. Steinbach, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Miami Field Office Investigations.

In what may be the most interesting of the three cases, Michael Pizzi, the suspended Miami Lakes Mayor pleaded not guilty in late-October to the indictment that charged him with pursuing kickbacks that prosecutors’ state was intended to enrich him in exchange for backing federal grant applications in the latest allegations against him.

South Miami-Dade lobbyist Michael Kesti first approached the FBI in 2011 informing them of his suspicions that Candia was in league with corrupt politicians in South Florida.

Before this latest indictment was filed, an undercover investigation was instituted by detectives of the Miami-Dade Police, established on purported threats that Pizzi expressed to a confidential informant working for that police agency.

In a conversation covertly recorded, Pizzi clearly stated that he wanted to “take out” a Miami Lakes town councilman who was apparently a rival, by the method of either rigging the brakes of his vehicle or planting cocaine in his car. The probe was dropped by police after a substantial amount of time had passed and no action was taken that supported the statements. The “then” mayor called his remarks in the recording as no more than “silly, ridiculous drinking talk.”

The current indictment, filed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jared Dwyer, depicts Pizzi as a politician who had knowledge that the purported federal grant scheme was a “money grab.”

In the latest criminal complaint, Pizzi was accused of an extortion plot along with lobbyist Richard Candia who was accused of the same offense, as mentioned above with Manny Maroño and lobbyist Jorge Forte.

They were accused of participating in what has been termed a “bogus” grant scheme planned to net the participants thousands of dollars, whereas their cities would receive nothing. Posing as businessmen from Chicago, an FBI anti-corruption team coordinated the sting. The agents stated that they would obtain the grant money with the intention of performing an economic development study. The proceeds would then be split between the four of them.

The indictment charges that Pizzi collected $6,000 in total cash, received in three payments. He also is alleged to have received an additional $750 paid by checks for his 2012 reelection campaign. These payments were allegedly in return for advocating resolutions that simplified the establishment for grant applications in Medley and Miami Lakes.

Pizzi has unequivocally denied accepting any cash as charged. Subsequent to his arrest, he said that he “accepted no money inappropriately or illegally from anyone, ever.” in a prepared statement.

To read the complete press release charging Maroño and Pizzi and the two lobbyists on the FBI Website, click here. The press release regarding Maroño’s guilty plea can be read in full by clicking here.

The term political corruption may be defined as elected officials accepting bribes, receiving kickbacks taking part in extortion, cronyism, nepotism, and conflicts of interest as well as other questionable behavior by those elected to office to serve the public. Corruption has troubled American politics since the time the country was settled by the Europeans. It’s a threat to good government authority and democracy as a whole. Its effects undermine democratic values and its legitimacy. The issue of fighting political corruption was a major concern of the federal Constitution dating back to 1787.

Mr. Cohen is a board certified trial lawyer specializing in federal criminal defense. He is rated AV by Martindale Hubbel (pre-eminent) and a “Super Lawyer” recognized as being in the top 5% of his specialized field (criminal trial law) among Florida lawyers. He is considered a specialist by the Florida Bar in his field. Mr. Cohen has tried scores of cases over his 35 year career and is a member of the Florida and New York Bars. He practices in Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and Miami, among other counties. He is also admitted to practice in the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh and Second Circuit.

Mr. Cohen’s practice has recently expanded and he is now a partner in the prestigious law firm of McLaughlin & Stern, LLP. Through this partnership, Mr. Cohen can now lead your defense in the New York Metropolitan area in addition to the Broward, Dade, or Palm Beach County areas as well as all other jurisdictions throughout the state of Florida
Mr. Cohen is also listed in the 2013 edition of “Best Lawyers in America

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