By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
To no one's surprise, Pizzi's exploits have browned a lot of people off -- adversaries who claim the white knight crusader is nothing more than an egomaniacal opportunist. Dissenters include Miami Lakes lawyer Raul Gastesi and Hialeah Council President Julio Robaina. Gastesi represents Robaina's company, 84-A Holdings LLC, a residential development company that recently won approval to build 1050 homes in Hialeah Gardens. Robaina's company is suing Pizzi's pro bono clients Pablo Alvarez and Gerri Fontanella. Robaina accuses the two Hialeah Gardens residents of making statements at a city planning and zoning board meeting that could tarnish his reputation and that of his partners. According to the lawsuit, the defendants allegedly implied that 84-A's principals had bribed former zoning board member Jorge Merida in exchange for the zoning approval. Merida was recently elected to the Hialeah Gardens City Council.
"Michael engages in no-holds-barred politics to gain himself exposure," charges Gastesi from his office on 67th Avenue and NW 156th Street. "He uses the media to get his name in the newspaper."
"I don't believe he fights for the little guy," Robaina accuses. "He fights to get his five minutes of fame. Unless it's a big fight against a dump or the rock miners, he won't get involved." For instance, Gastesi points out, the first thing Pizzi did as Alvarez and Fontanella's attorney was to tip off the Miami Herald about their "great injustice."
"Instead of calling me to see if we could work this out amicably," Gastesi grouses, "he went straight to the media as a way to intimidate me and my clients." Then, Gastesi insists, Pizzi had residents write letters to the Miami Herald Northwest Dade Neighbors editorial section bashing him and 84-A: "He gets his little gang of supporters to write what a bad guy I am, personally attacking me, because of who I represent," Gastesi huffs. "His tactics are deplorable."
Pizzi doesn't deny that he plays the local media: "How else is a community activist going to draw attention?" he laughs. "Average residents like Pablo and Gerri don't have money to hire a lawyer or a lobbyist to defend their interests. They don't have money to buy off politicians. So how do you get their voices heard? You do it by drawing attention to their problem. If it appears that I'm always in the limelight, it's because I'm constantly fighting these battles on behalf of other people."
For instance, when Redland resident Ellen Perez could no longer afford an attorney to defend her against a lawsuit brought by Tomas Andres Mestre, a politically connected trucking magnate, Pizzi took on her case for free. Mestre is famous for hosting campaign fundraisers for Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas and County Manager Steve Shiver (when the latter was Homestead mayor). Since 1998 Perez and her neighbors in the rural Redland district north of Homestead have been waging war against Mestre-owned Ouster Corp. and its illegal, toxic dump at SW 210th Street and 167th Avenue. The mountain of waste created a horrid stench that prompted more than 60 neighbors to complain to county officials. Of far greater concern than foul odors, however, was the discovery that the material was contaminated and posed uncertain but potentially grave health risks (arsenic in the groundwater). County bureaucrats, well aware of Mestre's political clout, didn't take regulatory action against Ouster until last year, when the county finally shut down the site and ordered Mestre to remove the toxic trash.
In 2001 Mestre sued Perez, accusing her of intentionally making false statements about Ouster "for the purpose of harming Ouster to force it to close the facility." Perez mistakenly believed the county had found arsenic in her residential water well, and made comments to that effect to two local newspapers. So far she's run up $10,000 in legal fees, and the stress has led to another $16,000 in medical bills. Pizzi calls Mestre's legal action against Perez a classic SLAPP suit (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation), a retaliation against Perez and Redland residents who'd exposed Ouster's activities.
"Here you have this woman, an average homeowner," Pizzi says incredulously, "being bullied by a guy who has Penelas and Shiver in his pocket! Why should he be allowed to ruin this woman's life because she spoke against him? Who is going to stand up for Ellen and say, 'This is fucked up?'"
Asked if he gets gratification from his in-your-face tactics, Pizzi snaps, "Of course I do!" He sinks into an office loveseat: "But I ask myself every day if I'm fighting for the right reasons. I believe I am. I believe I have integrity and, well, principles ..."
Since he took Perez's case, Pizzi hasn't missed an opportunity to draw publicity to his client's plight. For example, he provided me with a copy of the deposition of John Renfrow, director of the county's Department of Environmental Resources Management, or DERM, which became the focus of a New Times article ("The Dumbing-Down of DERM," January 23, 2003), criticizing Renfrow for allowing his boss, Shiver, to undermine DERM. It was classic Pizzi: provide a reporter with newsworthy information on an ongoing controversial subject he is involved in.
Needless to say, it didn't make Renfrow or Shiver happy. A week after the article ran, both confronted me outside the county commission chambers in downtown Miami. "What Pizzi did was wrong," Shiver chastised. "He gave you an advance copy of John's deposition before [Renfrow] had a chance to read it. Pizzi gave you that information just to get his name in the paper." Shiver also had the audacity to claim that he was responsible for shutting down Ouster. "I really don't appreciate the personal attacks on me," Renfrow chimed in, referring to Pizzi's comment that the DERM director "couldn't find his office with a map." Pizzi also rankled Mestre's lawyer, Andres Rivero, who unsuccessfully tried to obtain a gag order on Pizzi, preventing him from contacting the press.