A pair of lobbyists facing charges related to the public corruption arrests of the mayors of Miami Lakes and Sweetwater surrendered to authorities Wednesday.
Jorge Forte, 41, and Richard Candia, 49, turned themselves in to the FBI at their headquarters in North Miami Beach. They appeared in federal court later Wednesday and were both released on $100,000 bond.
Authorities say Forte and Candia are charged with conspiracy to commit extortion under color of official right related to Tuesday's arrests of Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi and Sweetwater Mayor Manuel Marono.
Candia's lawyer would not comment, but Forte’s attorney David Weinstein maintained his client’s innocence.
“We’re aware of what the charges are that have been filed against him, and we’re comfortable to let the facts speak for themselves inside the courtroom," Weinstein said.
According to the FBI and U.S. Attorney's Office, Forte and Candia were involved in separate schemes that paid the mayors thousands of dollars in bribes.
Authorities began their investigation in June 2011 after receiving a tip about corrupt activity, and an undercover operation was begun. 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.
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, U.S. Attorney Wifredo 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.
Marono, 41, was released after posting $250,000 bond Tuesday. Pizzi, 51, was released on $50,000 bond. Both were suspended from office Tuesday by Gov. Rick Scott.
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.”
On Wednesday, the City of Sweetwater and acting mayor Jose Diaz released a statement saying there would be no restructuring of the city commission at this time.
"The City of Sweetwater is an institution that is not defined by one person and continues to operate as usual in light of recent events," the statement said.
Diaz would only be sworn in as mayor if Marono is convicted or resigns from his position, the statement said.
"I would like to reiterate that Manny Maroño is innocent until proven guilty. I am confident in our judicial system and that justice will prevail," Diaz said. "I will continue to lead the city in a professional fashion with the highest level of integrity. The sentiment is the same for all administration and staff. There will be no gaps in service to our residents or community."
All defendants will be in court on Aug. 27
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