Suspended Sweetwater Mayor Pleads Not Guilty to Public Corruption Charge

Suspended Sweetwater Mayor Manuel Marono pleaded not guilty to a public corruption charge in federal court Friday.

Marono entered the plea to the charge of conspiring to commit honest services fraud during a brief hearing in federal court in Miami, where lobbyist Jorge Forte also entered a plea of not guilty.

Marono, who was accompanied by his mother and other supporters, refused comment after the hearing.

"We just entered a plea of not guilty, it's standard form in this process in the arraignment," said Marono's attorney, Armando Rosquete.

Marono and Forte, his onetime chief of staff, were initially charged with conspiracy to commit extortion under color of official right. Marono faces up to five years in prison if convicted.

"From the beginning, we have said that we have placed our trust in the criminal justice system to resolve this matter," said Forte's attorney, David Weinstein. "Jorge Forte deeply regrets his involvement in this case, he will do everything he can to make up for it."

The two were arrested in August after an undercover FBI operation revealed they were pocketing thousands of dollars in kickbacks while seeking federal grants, authorities said.

Marono was removed as head of the Florida League of Cities following the arrest. He has been released on $250,000 bond.

According to the Miami Herald, Marono and Forte plan to change the plea to guilty at a later date as part of a plea deal.

"We are not going to comment on that," Rosquete said Friday, when asked about the plea deal.

Marono was arrested the same day Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi was arrested on similar charges. Pizzi maintains that he's innocent.

Pizzi and a second lobbyist arrested in the FBI operation, Richard Candia, are due to appear in court next Friday.

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