Florida Gov. Rick Scott said he has suspended Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi and Sweetwater Mayor Manuel Marono from office after they were arrested by the FBI on public corruption charges Tuesday. Later on Tuesday, police escorted Marono's family members to the door of his Sweetwater home, while a line of police vehicles protected his privacy on the curb. Attorneys Kendall Coffey and Amanda Maxwell and U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer discussed the case. Marono spoke with NBC 6's Steve Litz recently about his salary.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott said he has suspended Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi and Sweetwater Mayor Manuel Marono from office after they were arrested by the FBI on public corruption charges Tuesday.
Both mayors accepted thousands of dollars in bribes in separate schemes, authorities said.
The mayors were arrested by agents at their City Hall offices, following a two-year public corruption investigation, the U.S. Attorney's Office and FBI said during a news conference Tuesday afternoon.
"This is a sad day for South Florida, this betrayal of our public trust is intolerable," U.S. Attorney Wifredo A. Ferrer said. "Our democracy suffers in these cases when elected officials use their power and political influence for personal gain instead of the public good."
Scott suspended the mayors through executive orders.
Footage showed FBI agents placing Marono, 41, and Pizzi, 51, who were both handcuffed, into cars for the ride to federal court in downtown Miami, where they made their first appearances Tuesday afternoon. Marono was ordered held on $250,000 bond, while Pizzi was ordered held on $50,000 bond. Neither man had much to say as he bonded out.
"There'll be a time," Pizzi told reporters.
The defendants, including two lobbyists who are also involved in the alleged bribery schemes, Jorge Forte and Richard Candia, have been charged with conspiracy to commit extortion under color of official right, authorities said.
Pizzi's lawyer, Amanda Maxwell, said that he is an attorney and a public official, "and a man of integrity. Today begins his fight for vindication.”
“We really have no comment at this time, other than to say that we want to let the process work its way forward,” Marono’s attorney Armando Rosquette said. “And anything that we will be saying on behalf of Mayor Marono will be said in court.”
Vice Mayor Ceasar Mestre is serving as interim mayor in Miami Lakes, which plans to move forward with a special election in 90 days. Mestre did damage control at Town Hall.
"We're all surprised and very saddened by the events that have happened today," he said.
Mestre emphasized, "I ask everyone to please remember one of our basic tenets in our constitution. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty."
It will be business as usual in Miami Lakes, he assured residents.
In Sweetwater, Vice Mayor and City Commission President Jose Diaz became acting mayor, The Miami Herald reported.
Candia, 49, and Forte, 41, are expected to turn themselves in to the FBI on Wednesday before they appear in federal court, the FBI said. It wasn't immediately known whether they have attorneys.
Candia agreed to cooperate with law enforcement on June 25, the criminal complaint against him and Pizzi said.
Marono is in his third term as Sweetwater's mayor, and Pizzi is in his second term in Miami Lakes.
"This is disappointing. Public officials must be held to the highest standards," Gov. Scott said in a statement. "While we wait to see the evidence, the fact remains that elected officials must be held to the highest standard."
According to Ferrer, Marono received more than $40,000 in bribes since 2002 and Pizzi had received $6,750 in bribes.
The investigation began in June 2011 after authorities received a tip of corrupt activity, Ferrer said. Working on the tip, the FBI created a fictitious federal grant program, Ferrer said. It was made available through AmeriCorps, criminal complaints said.
Undercover agents proposed to Candia that with the aid of corrupt local public officials, they could get federal grant money that they would keep among themselves, authorities said. One undercover agent told Candia that "the play here is for the money, is for us to get the money and be able to use the money, you know, and just make money," according to the complaint against Marono, Forte and Candia.
Candia identified the two mayors as potential participants in the scheme, authorities said.
After Candia introduced Marono to the undercover agents, he got a resolution to be passed that authorized the agents' company to apply for federal grants on behalf of the City of Sweetwater, the Marono criminal complaint said.
Marono, working with Forte, accepted cash payments for his support of the grant scheme, and lied to an FBI agent posing as a grant auditor, Ferrer said.
Marono and Forte received $40,000 while Candia received at least $5,000 in kickbacks in connection with the Sweetwater scheme, authorities said.
Marono also used his position as president of the Florida League of Cities to float the scheme to other public officials to see if they were interested, Ferrer said. Forte and Candia also worked toward that end, and Marono and Forte received an additional $20,000 for the introductions, authorities said. But no officials were interested, Ferrer said.
Pizzi participated in a similar scheme in Miami Lakes and Medley, Ferrer said.
Candia introduced Pizzi, who also serves as Medley's town attorney, to the undercover agents to help implement the grant scheme, and he initially agreed to participate in exchange for $750 in campaign contributions, authorities said.
To help in the scheme's success, Pizzi backdated a document that endorsed the undercover agents' company, according to authorities. He also lied to and misled an undercover agent, whom he believed was a federal grant auditor, about the use of the grant money and the performance of the grantee, the Town of Medley, authorities said. For his help in Medley, Pizzi received a $1,000 kickback and other things of value, they said.
Later, Pizzi worked to get a resolution passed in Miami Lakes authorizing the undercover agents' company to seek grant money for the city, according to authorities. He received cash payoffs of $5,000 for his efforts in Miami Lakes, authorities said.
At a billiard club in Miami Lakes on Feb. 28, an undercover agent put a zip-lock bag containing an envelope with $2,000 in cash and two cigars on the edge of a pool table, telling Pizzi the cigars were for him. Pizzi said he didn't smoke, but the agent reminded him that Candia had said Pizzi wanted two cigars, the complaint against Pizzi and Candia said. Pizzi then took the zip-lock bag into the men's restroom, and when he returned he did not have the bag in his hands, the complaint noted.
According to his bio on MiamiLakes-FL.gov, Pizzi was born and raised in Brooklyn and moved to South Florida in 1988. When Miami Lakes was incorporated in 2000, he was elected to the Town Council.
He was elected mayor in 2008 and reelected in 2012. He also serves as the attorney for the town of Medley and received his J.D. from the University of Miami, where he was first in his class, his bio said.
Marono became the youngest person elected to the Sweetwater commission at the age of 23 in 1995 and was elected mayor in 2003, according to CityofSweetwater.fl.gov.
Later on Tuesday, police escorted Marono's family members to the door of his Sweetwater home. A line of police vehicles protected his privacy on the curb.
Marono relayed a message through his attorney Kendall Coffey.
"This has been 10 years of great progress for the city of Sweetwater, progress that will continue, and Manny looks forward to the opportunity to prove his innocence," Coffey said.
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