The mayors of Miami Lakes and Sweetwater in Florida were arrested on corruption charges Tuesday by the FBI, prompting Gov. Rick Scott to suspend Mayors Michael Pizzi and Manuel Marono.
Pizzi, the 51-year-old mayor of Miami Lakes, and Morono, the 41-year-old mayor of Sweetwater, allegedly took bribes to further similar but unrelated grant schemes in South Florida, according to the Miami U.S. Attorney’s Office. Two Miami lobbyists, Jorge Forte and Richard Candia, were also arrested.
“Our democracy suffers when, as in these cases, elected officials use their power and political influence for personal gain instead of for the public good,” said U.S. Attorney Wilfredo Ferrer. “Public corruption, at any level of government, corrodes and undermines the public’s confidence in our system of government. We are committed to stopping this corrosion and to help restore transparency to local government.”
According to the charges, Marono received $40,000 in bribes while Pizzi took $6,750. They each face up to 20 years in prison if convicted on corruption charges.
The FBI’s arrest of the two mayors was the result of a two-year-investigation, when Candia “began dealing with an FBI confidential informant and two undercover FBI agents posing as the owners of a Chicago-based grant administration business,” the U.S. attorney said.
The undercover agents told Candia that they could obtain federal grant money “with the aid of corrupt local public officials.” Candia fingered Morono and Pizzi as potential participants in the scheme, according to Ferrer.
In Morono’s case, the Sweetwater mayor allegedly lied to and misled auditors (who turned out to be FBI agents) about the nature of the federal grant money that he authorized through a city resolution. Morono was allegedly paid to see that the resolution went through.
Pizzi got $1,000 in kickbacks and $750 in campaign contributions as part of another grant scheme involving undercover FBI agents, according to the criminal complaint charging the Miami Lakes mayor.
Pizzi, who also doubled as the town attorney of Medley, Fla., allegedly backdated a document and endorsed the company run by the undercover agents who were seeking the grant. He also allegedly lied and misled an undercover agent posing as an auditor about the nature of the grant.
As mayor of Miami Lakes, Pizzi also got a resolution passed to authorize grant funds in exchange for $5,000, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.
The charges against the two mayors led Scott to suspend Pizzi and Morono.
"This is disappointing. Public officials must be held to the highest standards," Scott said in a statement, according to NBC 6 South Florida. “While we wait to see the evidence, the fact remains that elected officials must be held to the highest standard.”
Pizzi’s interim replacement is Ceasar Mestre, who previously served as vice mayor, according to NBC 6 South Florida. Miami Lakes is scheduled to have a special election in 90 days.
Morono’s replacement is Jose Diaz, previously the vice mayor and city commission president of Sweetwater.