MIAMI LAKES (CBSMiami/The Miami Herald) – The suspended Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi said he is innocent and said he would vindicate himself in federal court and become mayor again.
Pizzi told CBS4 news partner, The Miami Herald, Saturday, that he “accepted no money inappropriately or illegally from anyone, ever,” and that his only motivation was to obtain government grants to help his hometown and Medley.
Federal authorities arrested Pizzi last Tuesday saying he had accepted kickbacks as part of a grant scheme that was an undercover FBI operation.
“I have never committed any crime or done anything wrong,” Pizzi, 51, said in a statement prepared for the paper.
“Now that this has happened to me, I look forward to clearing my name in court as soon as possible so I can return to serving the people as mayor,” Pizzi, 51, said. “The evidence will prove my innocence.”
While the statement was given to the paper, Pizzi’s lawyers, Ed Shohat and Ben Kuehne, would not let Pizzi answer questions one-on-one.
Pizzi was charged with conspiring to commit extortion with Miami-Dade lobbyist Richard Candia. Candia was also charged with the same offense in a separate complaint accusing Sweetwater Mayor Manny Maroño and lobbyist Jorge Forte of receiving kickbacks.
The “bogus” federal grant scheme the men are accused of taking part in lined their pockets with thousands of dollars, but the towns would receive none of the money.
According to the FBI, Pizzi collected three payments totaling $6,000 in cash and received another $750 in checks for his 2012 reelection campaign.
The money was received in exchange for resolutions that paved the way for grant applications in Miami Lakes and Medley, where the mayor also worked as the town’s attorney.
Maroño and Forte are accused of accepting a total of $60,000 in cash and checks for the same scheme, but in Sweetwater.
Other politicians that they attempted to bring into the scheme did not join in.
Candia allegedly received $5,000 in cash for the Sweetwater deal, and another $500 for introducing Pizzi to the FBI undercover agents posing as the Chicago businessmen and to an FBI confidential informant, South Miami-Dade lobbyist Michael Kesti.
According to the paper, he approached the FBI two years ago with suspicions that Candia was working with some corrupt local politicians, and that Pizzi and Maroño would be open to lining their pockets.
Federal prosecutors will need to prove Pizzi and the others participated in a grant scheme knowing that the sole purpose was to enrich them.
Prosecutors also have to prove the four defendants’ intentions were criminal when they allegedly pocketed the cash payments.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jared Dwyer also has evidence of conversations — in-person and via telephone — recorded by FBI agents in which the defendants talk about their grant dealings. Candia could also be a key witness because he ultimately agreed to cooperate with the government after agents first approached him in late June.
Pizzi said he did nothing wrong because he believed that the grant program with the government agency, AmeriCorps, was legitimate the paper reported.
He based that assertion on his understanding that Candia and Kesti were “experts” in the grant-application business, and that they vouched for the undercover agents who promised the mayor they could deliver the money.
“The opportunity to obtain grants and resources to create jobs and expand the local economy was my obligation and duty,” Pizzi said in his statement. “Being able to do that without spending any tax money was even better.”
According to federal agents, the scheme worked like this: the FBI agents posed as businessmen for the fictitious nonprofit grant-application company, Sunshine Universal. Their confidential source, Kesti, arranged for them to meet fellow lobbyist, Candia, who made the introductions to the two mayors.
According to the complaint, Candia arranged for one of the agents and Kesti to meet Pizzi for the first time at the mayor’s Miami Lakes office in September 2011.
In January 2012, the two undercover agents, along with Kesti and Candia, met with Pizzi a second time at a Miami Lakes restaurant to discuss going ahead with the “bogus” grant scheme in Medley, where Pizzi worked as the town attorney. Pizzi agreed to put a resolution on the Medley Town Council’s upcoming agenda to pursue a federal grant from AmeriCorps, a real federal agency.
Days after the meeting, Kesti met Pizzi at the mayor’s office, discussed the grant program and gave him three separate $250 checks made payable to “Reelect Mayor Michael Pizzi” in exchange for putting the item on the agenda.
The following month, Pizzi pushed the passage of the grant resolution through the Medley Council, authorizing Sunshine Universal to apply for the grant on behalf of the town.
The mayor is accused of repeating the scheme in Miami Lakes over the next 18 months.
He allegedly collected three cash payments totaling $6,000 from Candia and the undercover FBI agents.
In his prepared statement, Pizzi said any money he may have received was all above board.
Said Pizzi: “I hold my head up very high as having served the people and will continue to do so.”
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