Mayors with Big Political Ties Charged in Bribery Scheme
Two small-town mayors with ties to big-time politicians and lobbyists have been arrested by the FBI and criminally charged for participating in a major public corruption scheme involving the theft of federal grants.
The public officials run little municipalities in south Florida that most people have never even heard of, but they are connected to high-profile Republicans like Florida Governor Rick Scott. In fact, one of the arrested mayors, Manuel Maroño of Sweetwater, played a key role in Governor Scott’s transition team in 2011. Maroño and the other arrested mayor, Michael Pizzi of Miami Lakes, actually launched a “business development” firm called 7 Strategies after Scott’s 7-step plan to create 700,000 jobs in 7 years.
Federal prosecutors say the longtime mayor pals teamed up with two prominent lobbyists to operate a scheme to steal federal grants that were supposed to help their respective towns. The lobbyists were also arrested in the sting and charged in the plot. One of them, Richard Candia, worked for U.S. Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart when the Republican lawmaker was a state legislator.
Large sums of cash were exchanged in envelopes and hidden in notebooks during covert meetings in cars and at local eateries, according to federal prosecutors, who claim in separate complaints that the lobbyists went around recruiting corrupt politicians to participate in the scheme. In all, tens of thousands of dollars were exchanged with hefty cash bonuses for making introductions to other public officials willing to participate in the kickback and bribery operation.
The investigation began in mid-2011, according to the feds, when one of the lobbyists (Candia) began a relationship with undercover FBI agents posing as the owners of a Chicago-based nonprofit. The agents told Candia that with the help of corrupt local public officials they could obtain federal grants and keep the money rather than put it in city coffers. The lobbyist quickly identified Maroño and Pizzi as candidates, according to federal affidavits.
Both mayors abused their power to enact measures to help the fake FBI companies get federal grants made available only upon the official request of local municipalities, authorities say. Maroño collaborated with both lobbyists and pocketed more than $40,000 in bribes, according to his federal complaint. Pizzi’s complaint says he got $6,750 in bribes. The feds appear to have boatloads of evidence, including incriminating wiretap recordings of the local politicians.
Coincidentally, Judicial Watch was present during a recent Spanish-language television interview with Mayor Maroño in Miami. JW appeared on the news show to discuss its work of local interest, including monitoring military commission hearings at Guantanamo Bay and singer Beyoncé Knowles’ controversial trip to Cuba.
In his segment, Maroño bragged about turning around a working-class town that barely spans a square mile and has a population of about 13,000. He touted the tremendous economic progress during his tenure and highlighted a deal with a popular, big-chain furniture store that’s scheduled to open in Sweetwater in the coming months. This was just days before his arrest.