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
On a crisp December afternoon in 1994, a month shy of his retirement as a U.S. probation officer, Michael Pizzi, Jr. made one last call to an ex-con on federal parole. Pizzi was still assigned to the South Florida High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force (HIDTA), a consortium of federal, state, and local law agencies working together on high-profile drug, money laundering, and violent crime investigations. Pizzi's last deal was to check in with Manny Gardin, a man who'd served fed time for narc trafficking and who couldn't account for his sources of income.
When Pizzi and his partner, Stan Branch, arrived at Gardin's Northwest Miami-Dade apartment, the convicted felon's girlfriend informed them that he wasn't home. Pizzi blinked like a lizard: "Listen sweetie, you don't want me to lock you up for bullshitting a federal officer," Pizzi, now a criminal defense lawyer, recalls hissing at her. "I know he's in there. I can smell him. Tell his fat ass to come out here." As he talks, a Joker-sized grin wrinkles Pizzi's face. "At that point Gardin, a 6'4" 300-plus-pound gorilla, comes running at me and Stan. He's yelling: 'You sons of bitches! Lee me the hell alone!'"
Pizzi sinks back in his chair, describing Gardin's immense gut crushing him against the railing of the apartment. "Stan grabs him from behind and Gardin slimes off," Pizzi says. "He thought Stan was carrying a piece. We didn't have enough to get him for assault on a federal officer that day, but we were gonna get him."
Pizzi had accrued enough sick leave to take his last month on the job off. For once, he told his long-suffering wife Maria, he would just relax, enjoy time with his family, and prepare for his new career as a private attorney. The Gardin encounter altered that. "I canceled sick leave," Pizzi says. "I wasn't leaving until we put that fucking asshole back in [prison]." So Mike spent his last days investigating Gardin, discovering that he'd forged the signatures of unsuspecting homeowners on a number of quit-claim deeds to himself. Gardin would then use the phony quit-claims to obtain fraudulent second mortgage loans on his victims' properties.
On his last day as a "probie," Pizzi and Branch returned to Gardin's place. This time, they brought an arrest warrant for parole violation and fifteen U.S. Marshals. "They broke down the door and shoved shotguns in his face," Pizzi gloats. "When we put the cuffs on him, I said, 'Remember me, asshole?' Two years later, I testified against him. Gardin ended up serving two years in federal for mortgage fraud."
Up close, Pizzi seems obsessed. During his days as a federal officer, he was drunk with the thrill of putting bad guys in jail. Today the 40-year-old has allowed his obsessions to metamorphose into crusades against overdevelopment, environmental pollution, public corruption, and the special interests that dominate local government in Miami-Dade. He's become the People's Champ. "He's a person who looks for and enjoys a challenge," offers Pizzi's wife, Maria, a spunky 40-year-old Cuban American, over a cafecito at their Miami Lakes home. "He doesn't back down from a fight when he believes he's right. Once Michael gets a phone call from a person in need, he takes it upon himself that he has to do something."
In 1999 Pizzi formed Citizens Against Blasting, a group trying to hold the rock mining industry accountable for the damage their dynamite work has caused hundreds of homes in Northwest Miami-Dade. He filed a class-action lawsuit against miners on behalf of a thousand homeowners. The suit is still pending. However, the miners and Pizzi appear to have reached a compromise. The Florida legislature is contemplating a new law that creates a statewide independent claims process for homeowners who feel their property is being damaged by rock mining. Maria Pizzi says that her husband took up the issue after getting a call from an affected neighbor. "We never even noticed the cracks [in the walls of the Pizzis' home] until we got that call," Maria remembers. "Five years later, Michael is still fighting the miners."
Pizzi led the successful fight, in the same year, against the expansion of the Peerless Dade landfill in Miami Lakes from 12 feet to 90 feet in height. Residents feared the expanded landfill would contaminate the groundwater and create a health hazard. (Recently Pizzi filed a lawsuit blocking the Miami-Dade County Commission's decision to allow Peerless to expand its landfill from 12 feet to 23 feet.) In a related matter, he also led a recall effort against former County Commissioner Miriam Alonso in 1999. Last year, the state attorney indicted Alonso on various corruption charges, including the accusation that she and her husband, Leonel Alonso, illegally collected money to fight the recall, but kept that money for their own use.
Earlier this year, Pizzi mounted a new battle against his long-time nemesis, real estate baron Lowell Dunn. Mike wants the developer to remove dozens of towering 25-foot dirt mounds Dunn is storing on a vacant parcel surrounded by single-family homes in Miami Lakes. Residents have complained that winds blow the dirt into their back yards, pools, and driveways. At Pizzi's urging, the Miami Lakes Town Council filed a civil lawsuit to force Dunn to remove the piles. "Here's a guy who just doesn't give a shit about people's quality of life," Pizzi growls.
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.
Meanwhile Pizzi wants Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge John Gordon, who is handling the case, to hold Shiver in contempt for allegedly misleading the court about his knowledge of a much-publicized pollution case. Shiver declined any further discussion while the lawsuit is pending.
Pizzi's cluttered Brickell Avenue office is adorned with plaques from the DEA, the U.S. Marshals Service, and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, commending his work. Although he's developing a star reputation as a criminal defense attorney, Pizzi remains a cop at heart. For the past few months, he's been considering a run as a Republican against Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, a Democrat, in 2004. Despite her winning re-election in 2000, local political pundits believe the two-time state prosecutor is vulnerable (rumors from knowledgeable sources say she may not even seek re-election). One reason: Alberto Milian, Rundle's Republican opponent in the 2000 race, garnered 44 percent of the vote, despite having never run for office before. Milian did an effective job of pointing out Rundle's shortcomings -- such as her perceived soft approach to fighting public corruption, and that her office drops a full third of the arrests police make. Milian also had the full support of the Miami-Dade County Police Benevolent Association, which has a long-running feud with Rundle. No word yet if the PBA plans on re-endorsing Milian, or if the group would take its chances with Pizzi. The PBA supported Pizzi in his re-election last year to the Miami Lakes Town Council. But John Rivera, PBA president, did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Milian says he intends to run again in 2004; this would hurt Pizzi's chances, says Dario Moreno, a political science professor and media pundit from Florida International University. "Unless Pizzi can make a dent in the Cuban-American vote, he'll have a hard time against Milian," Moreno surmises. For one thing, there's Milian's name recognition. He's the son of Emilio Milian, the recently deceased radio broadcaster and Cuban-exile hero whose legs were blown off in a 1976 car bombing. In his run against Rundle, Milian was strong in Cuban-American neighborhoods such as south Hialeah, where 75 percent of the voters backed him. Milian has only bolstered his stature since 2000, working as a radio commentator at first WWFE-AM 670, and currently on Radio Uno, WKAT-AM 1360, talking about all things Miami, including (surprise, surprise) public corruption in this town. Milian also has experience. He spent twelve years as an assistant state attorney in Broward County. "The voters know me," Milian relates. "Three years ago, I was the only person willing to take [Rundle] on. I was the only one with the courage to say she wasn't doing her job, that she was soft on public corruption, and that she was squandering resources."
But if somehow Pizzi could get past Milian in the September 2004 Republican primary, the former parole officer would have a good shot at beating Rundle in the November election, presuming Dubya's approval ratings are still soaring. "During a presidential election, Hispanics tend to vote party over ethnicity," Moreno theorizes. In Miami-Dade, Hispanic Republicans outnumber Hispanic Democrats by 237,817 to 105,536. "So Pizzi would carry the Hispanic Republican vote, and then he could pick up the Anglo Republican vote and enough Anglo Democrat voters (the ones who don't vote for Hispanics) to put him over the top."
Pizzi also fits the mold of the old American political stereotype of the Republican reformer, immortalized by headstrong, heavy-handed politicians like Theodore Roosevelt and Rudy Giuliani, Moreno adds. "He's made his name by taking on big government and big industry. In a community that has seen one scandal after the other, and where the average citizen is cynical about government, a candidate like Pizzi is appealing to voters." But of course Pizzi's crusading has angered a lot of traditional fundraisers, so his campaign might be difficult to finance.
Pizzi's desire to run for higher office does not sit well with his wife. "I can't stop him, but I certainly won't be a part of his campaign," she reflects. "Especially after what we had to go through during his re-election campaign [for town council] last year." In that race, Pizzi's opponent, Maggie Clavelo, who had never run for public office, turned into a rainmaker in the final two weeks of the campaign. According to her finance report, from September 14 through October 3, Clavelo (who declined comment) collected a total of $27,749 in campaign donations. By contrast, Pizzi only raised roughly $10,000 for his entire campaign. Clavelo collected contributions of $100 to $500 each from construction companies, housewives, and office administrators from Hialeah, Hialeah Gardens, Hollywood, West Palm Beach, and as far as Springfield, Virginia, all of whom suddenly took an interest in Miami Lakes politics.
Clavelo also had the support of an anonymous group calling itself Citizens for Responsible Government, which spent big money on a slick ad attacking Pizzi's law practice. The group could have consisted of Pizzi opponents such as rock mining companies Rinker Materials Corp. and White Rock Industries, Lowell Dunn, Raul Gastesi, with a little Tomas Mestre sprinkled in for good measure. Still no one has ever come forward and taken credit on behalf of the group. The flyer, mailed to Miami Lakes residents the week before the October 8, 2001, elections, said things like, "While Pizzi tells you he wants to make the streets of our community safe for our children, he and his partners pride themselves on representing serious narcotics-related cases," and "Why doesn't Pizzi tell you that he and his partners make their money representing corrupt public officials caught on tape and charged with bribery and money laundering." That was a reference to law partner Ed Shohat's defense of former County Commissioner Jimmy Burke, who was convicted on charges of bribery and money laundering in 1999; Shohat took on the case prior to hiring Pizzi. "It was propaganda after propaganda," Maria groans. "I don't want to go through that ordeal again."
Michael Pizzi, Jr., born November 6, 1962, grew up in the predominantly Italian-American Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, last redoubt of the Mob, and where every other block had a Catholic church, a pizzeria, and a Cosa Nostra social club. But the Pizzis were far from being the prototypical Mob family. In fact his father, Michael Pizzi Sr., made a name for himself as a renowned fugitive hunter (who brought down some of the illest mobsters in the country) during an illustrious 30-year career as a U.S. Marshal.
His prize catch was Alphonse "Junior" Persico, a former underboss of New York's Colombo organized-crime family. Junior, also called "Allie Boy," went on the lam in 1980, making the FBI's and Marshals' most-wanted list. Seven years later, a Pizzi, Sr.-led task force hunted Persico down in Connecticut. In Robert Sabbag's Too Tough to Die: Down and Dangerous with the U.S. Marshals, the author describes Pizzi, Sr. as a man "who should have been a wiseguy but chose to be a cop. At the root of his success was an enthusiasm for his work and for everyday life that was almost childlike. Feeding the undercurrent of his personality was a wellspring of potential mischief, and he seemed unwilling to suppress it." The same could be said of Mike, who idolized and forged a close bond with his father. The bond instilled Pizzi with a dogged determination that stuck with him through college, his law enforcement career, and his life today. The most important life rule he picked up: Don't let anyone intimidate you.
In 1980, Pizzi, Jr. graduated from Bensonhurst's New Utrecht High School. "People used to call it the 'knock, knock school' because if you knocked on the students' heads, no one was home," Pizzi cracks. He was sharing his personal history over a couple of Coronas and conch fritters at a Flanigan's in northwest Hialeah. He attended John Jay College in Manhattan, obtaining both his undergraduate and master's degrees in criminal justice in 1984 through an accelerated program.
Even as a student at John Jay, a school with a liberal political bent, Pizzi went against conventional wisdom. He was an ardent Ronald Reagan supporter at a time when the president proposed slashing student loans and government grants. "I wasn't exactly the most popular guy on campus," Pizzi says nonchalantly. "I formed the first conservative student group on campus, the James Madison Society. And I started inviting people like Walter Williams, the black economist who was involved in developing Reaganomics. The students and the faculty were pretty rough on me."
After graduation, Pizzi was hired by the U.S. Eastern District of New York's probation office. At age 21, he was the youngest probie on the payroll, and was assigned to South Jamaica, where lawlessness reigned. People were known to throw garbage cans at cops from the tops of buildings. Other assignments had Pizzi keeping tabs on Colombian drug smugglers and former members of John Gotti's crew.
On Pizzi's first day on the job, a hand-numbing, teeth-chattering snowy December afternoon in 1984, a group of drug cowboys blew off the head of New York parole officer Brian Rooney. They used a shotgun. Reportedly, Rooney was being too tough on the ex-cons he was supervising.
Pizzi wasn't intimidated. And he wasn't the social worker type. More like Wyatt Earp. One day Pizzi paid a visit to ex-con John Gilbert, a neighborhood dope dealer supposedly involved with the crew that killed Rooney. "You're asking a lot of questions, Mr. Pizzi," Gilbert allegedly told him, glaring at Mike from the stoop of his brownstone apartment building. "There are a lot of shootings in this neighborhood. A lot of stray bullets fly around. If you keep coming here, one of those bullets might hit you between the eyes by accident."
Pizzi responded by harassing Gilbert three days later. Taking advantage of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that allowed federal probation officers to search ex-cons' homes without a warrant, Mike went in with some New York cops and tossed Gilbert's home at 3:00 a.m. The next day, then-U.S. Judge Edward Korman removed Pizzi from the case after Gilbert's public defender complained. But two weeks later, the NYPD took Gilbert down for conspiracy to commit murder of a local police officer. "I told Mike, 'It looks like you've been vindicated,'" Korman remembers. "He tells me, 'Judge, I don't need any vindication.'"
In 1987 Pizzi's New York superiors sent him to Miami, where he would testify against former Gambino crime family associate and smut boss Andrew D'Apice. Pizzi's testimony helped convict D'Apice on child pornography charges. "Mike had done a thoroughly detailed investigation," comments Marcella Cohen, the former assistant U.S. prosecutor. "With his information, we built a solid case." Pizzi's work also caught the attention of Carlos Jeunke, chief probation officer for the Southern District of Florida from 1983 to 1994, who eventually offered Pizzi a job. In 1989, Pizzi packed his belongings into a Chevrolet Cavalier and moved to Miami.
"I thought I was going to conduct cases from the beach, get a suntan, and look at pretty girls all day," Pizzi jokes. "When I got here, I was assigned to Opa-locka and Liberty City. I didn't see a beach for six months."
"Mike wasn't the type of guy who sat in the bleachers," recalls Jeunke, a stoic with piercing blue eyes and a bushy salt-and-pepper mustache, who is now the office manager for a Miami law firm, Hunton & Williams. "He was an aggressive, hard-working officer who put his heart and soul into the job. He worked the streets, day and night. Of course, I had to slap him around a few times, but in those days, U.S. Probation needed a Mike Pizzi."
Doug Hughes, director of the South Florida HIDTA from 1990 through 2000, remembers Pizzi as a tenacious lawman who commanded the respect of officers from other local, state, and federal agencies. Hughes, a retired eighteen-year veteran of the Miami-Dade Police Department and former state drug czar, was enlisted by former U.S. Attorney Dexter Lehtinen to head up the task force and recruit agents who would be involved in bringing down drug traffickers, money launderers, and violent crime offenders. "This guy Pizzi would keep calling me," Hughes recalls. "He'd phone every week, telling me that U.S. Probation had to be in on the task force. I was so impressed."
Once he came on board, Hughes says, "Mike, because of his contacts around the country, became our clearinghouse of information. "
A federal agent who worked on the task force and asked to remain anonymous recalls Pizzi as a dogged investigator who would not sleep until the team nabbed the perp. One case involved an ex-con named Steven Jackson, a suspect in a number of drive-by drug-related shootings in Perrine, a predominantly black neighborhood. "He was on probation and serving time at a halfway house," the agent says. "He was released during the day to go to work. In fact, he was running a heroin operation with shipments to Tampa and other points north."
But Jackson proved a tough nut to crack. Agents could never catch him with drugs in his hands. "At one point it looked like we'd have to shut the case down," the agent says. "Mike went after Jackson's girlfriend, who was also on probation. He brought her into his office and flipped her. She told us about this submachine gun he kept at her house. Since we were having trouble nailing him on the drug trafficking and homicides, we decided to take him down on [this]."
The girlfriend arranged a meeting, in which she would hand the ex-con the gun. This meeting took place in the parking lot of Westland Mall in Hialeah. Jackson pulled up in a funeral home van (he was working for one as a cover). When Jackson took the gun, local, state, and federal agents rolled on him. But Jackson broke the perimeter, almost ran over a couple of Hialeah cops, and led the task force on a twenty-minute chase through West 49th Street, a main thoroughfare in Hialeah. Pizzi was in pursuit. "The next thing I remember is being hauled away in a fire rescue truck," Pizzi says. "I'd wrapped my car around a street pole. Jackson ended up crashing through the front of somebody's house. But we got him."
Meanwhile Pizzi was attending the UM law school at night. In 1994 he graduated first in his class and retired from U.S. Probie. He went to work as law clerk for federal magistrate Barry Garber for a year, then went to the Miami office of Morgan Lewis & Bockius, a New York law firm, handling employee relations law for corporate clients. But Pizzi yearned for the wild side of the profession: trial. So in 1998, he joined Bierman, Shohat, Loewy & Klein, a Miami law firm highly regarded for its criminal defense work -- such as when Don Bierman and Ted Klein won acquittal of former port director Carmen Lunetta in the famous Port of Miami corruption trial. Since joining the firm, Pizzi has notched some noteworthy victories himself. He won acquittal for Ramon Saul Sanchez, leader of the Cuban-American organization Movimiento Democracia, in federal court last year. The feds accused Sanchez and two others of entering Cuban waters without the permission of the U.S. government. Pizzi also won the appeal of former Hialeah Gardens Mayor Gilda "Miniskirt" Oliveros, who had been convicted of solicitation to commit first-degree murder on her ex-husband. On April 11, Rundle's office dropped the charges against Oliveros. However, the former mayor was sentenced to a 90-day work-release program and 18 months' probation on a separate insurance and voter fraud conviction.
"Mike is a work in progress," opines his law partner Ed Shohat, from his corner office above Brickell Avenue. "If there's any downside to Mike, it's that he's got his fingers in too many pies."
During his Eliot Ness days in Miami, Pizzi met Maria, who's stuck by him for thirteen years. She was also a parole officer at the time. "I didn't like him at first," she laughs now, from the Pizzis' Miami Lakes home. Their two children, Stefan, age thirteen, and Jennifer, age ten, are on the patio, pulling weeds. "He was very aloof. He was also very cocksure. But then I got to know him and I realized how smart he was. After a six-month courtship, we took our lunch break, went to the courthouse on Flagler Street, got our marriage license, and went back to work."
Since then, the Pizzis have been through numerous battles against overdevelopment and quality-of-life issues in Miami Lakes. Maria, who is tough as nails, blames herself for drawing Pizzi into his current role as the People's Champ. In 1995 Lowell Dunn announced he was building 150 townhouses on 60 acres west of Interstate 75; Miami Lakes residents had been told the land would be used for a community park, and to preserve an Indian burial ground. Maria began a grassroots effort to inform residents of Dunn's true plans and to mount opposition. At a community meeting on a Saturday morning, she brought Pizzi along. As a lawyer, he was preoccupied with other things. In fact Pizzi was not interested in grassroots activism, much less politics. "Hell, I didn't care what form of local government we had," Pizzi says from his Brickell Avenue office. "[But] when Lowell Dunn gets up to speak, he starts making threats that if we oppose his plans, he's going to build a parking lot and bingo hall, and sell it to the Miccosukees. At that point, I asked to speak and told Dunn the only way he would build on the land was over my dead body. I was pretty pissed off at what a jerk he was."
"That was the first and last time Lowell Dunn ever went to a community meeting without his attorneys," Maria adds. "That was the day Michael Pizzi, civic activist, was born."
Sometimes, however, Pizzi is blinded by his sense of righteousness. Take his battle to stop Hialeah's bid to annex a 3.8-mile stretch of land west of I-75 in unincorporated Northwest Miami-Dade. The land is home to several Pizzi battle sites. The Peerless dump is located there. The rock mining goes on there. And the Dunn-owned land Pizzi and residents have long coveted for a community park sits there as well. So it's no surprise that Mike would rather see Miami Lakes annex the land. "If that land falls into the wrong hands, everything I've fought for in the last ten years would mean nothing," he explains. "If the land is part of the Lakes, we would have control over development and preserve the quality of life for our neighbors."
If Hialeah gets the land, Pizzi warns, its pro-development city council could allow uncontrolled growth to occur. "The Hialeah plan is to build 20,000 high-density homes on top of the dump and the rock mining activities," Pizzi says.
Yet the Miami Lakes Town Council recently rejected Pizzi's proposal. The town also commissioned a two-million-dollar study that rejected the idea, too, because Miami Lakes, which was only incorporated in 2000, could not provide the area with basic services -- water and sewer. But the vote hasn't stopped Pizzi. There he was, this past February, debating Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez before the county's boundaries commission, in order to stop Hialeah. Julio Robaina, Hialeah's city council president, claims Pizzi's motives were clearly political and meant to do only one thing: "Produce hype around Mike Pizzi."
Robaina accuses Pizzi of turning the annexation issue into a Miami Lakes versus Hialeah brouhaha. "This is about what is best for Northwest Miami-Dade County," Robaina argues. "Miami Lakes did their own study that says the town is not prepared to service the area [proposed for annexation]. So why can't we come together and iron out our differences? To be a good public servant a person has to show a willingness to work with people. Pizzi is not going to build a consensus by making enemies and alienating [everyone] all the time."
"His idea of 'building consensus' is to cut a backroom deal and compromise my principles," Pizzi responds. "So Julio's right, I'm not going to play ball. And if that means I alienate people like him, so be it."
Miami Lakes Councilman Pizzi is driving his beat-up 1997 Toyota Camry down NW 87th Avenue, just entering the town limits at 149th Street. The Japanese rocket is missing its hubcaps and is caked in three weeks of Palmetto Expressway dirt. The inside of the car looks like a twenty-year-old wallet. The 'check engine' light is on, and a Bee Gees Greatest Hits cassette clutters the dashboard. But at least the air conditioner is working ...
He'd promised Maria he'd be home hours ago. He also forgot to pick up his son Stefan earlier in the day from soccer practice at Dade Christian School. As usual, Mike got caught up in a mission; taking a Miami Herald Neighbors reporter to meet with residents annoyed at the dozens of towering dirt mounds Lowell Dunn has stored behind their homes. The mounds are actually located on Dunn's land on NW 83rd Place between 158th and 162nd streets. Pizzi's cell goes off. "Hey CM," he says, subjecting his wife to the Mike Pizzi greeting. (CM stands for come mierda,or "shit eater.") Of course, Mike's kidding: "I'm just wrapping up a few things and I promise I'll be home in half an hour. I mean it this time."
It's clear Pizzi's obsessive ways are beginning to take their toll on his family and law practice. Yet Pizzi is unyielding. So sooner or later, either his family, his law firm, or his obsession will have to give. "It gets to the point that I get tired," Maria complains. "You see how much time [he] takes away from our family? Sometimes I think he's just spinning his wheels.
"Do you think his partners at Bierman Shohat love that he's in politics?" she asks exasperatedly. "[All those] pro bono cases? I don't think so. Michael is an excellent litigator but instead of making money, he's out there giving away advice or taking pro bono cases. And if it's not that, he's doing council stuff, talking to newspaper reporters, meeting with the rock miners or Peerless!"
Driving, Pizzi had acknowledged his problems. "It's been a strain on my law practice," Pizzi concedes. "My partners have expressed their concerns about the amount of time I spend on [free] cases when I could be making money. It's also unfair to my family ..."
But Pizzi can't explain himself further, other than acknowledging a deep-rooted desire to help people. "I guess I don't want to let the bad guys like Mestre win," he reasons. "I guess sometimes I have more balls than brains."
Shohat, however, downplayed the consequences of Mike's extracurricular activities. "We understand that criminal law is not his entire life," he demurs diplomatically. "But we do have priorities that have to be established."
There is also the issue of Pizzi's outspokenness against unethical and corrupt politicians. "People have criticized me for making comments about Miriam Alonso," Pizzi says. "They tell me that as a criminal defense attorney, I should be the last person weighing in on a person's guilt. But when you have a compelling case against someone like Alonso, it's pretty hard not to."
Has it cost his law firm customers? "I don't know if we've lost out on potential clients because of Mike," Shohat shrugs. "His outspokenness may have prevented someone from picking up the phone and calling us. I can certainly tell you that Alonso never gave a thought to calling us."
Pizzi is leaning on the hood of his Toyota in front of Barbara Goldman High School in Miami Lakes. He is sucking down a Powerade after a long day of picking up garbage with some neighborhood teenagers. The former parole officer is waxing poetic on the endemic corruption that runs rampant through the county. "Everything is about who you know and who you owe a favor to," Pizzi says. "We have a political process where you can only get elected by raising gobs of money and putting your hands in the pockets of special interests. Do you know how many times people have asked me to back off? To play a little ball, mend a few fences, agree to certain things in exchange for $50,000, even $100,000, for a run at countywide or statewide office? My enemies would like it if I would shut the hell up and go home."
Pizzi alleges Lowell Dunn tried to get him to play ball once. Mike says he met Dunn on a sultry July day in 1999 on the corner of NW 89th Avenue and 154th Street at the dead end. "He was bragging that he could easily raise $100,000 for me if I ever decided to run for a countywide office," Pizzi says. "All he wanted was for me to be a little more cooperative, a little more reasonable to his plans. To me, that meant cutting a deal that compromises everything I believe in. I told him to take a hike."
"You're the second coming of William Moses Kunstler, Michael," I crack, the soft monotone of the Bee Gees' "How Deep Is Your Love" emanating from the Camry's tape deck.
"I'll admit I like being a belligerent asshole," Pizzi shoots back. Kunstler is the famous 1960s radical lawyer who got regularly blasted for his politics and choice of clients (these included the Black Panthers, the Chicago Seven, leaders of the American Indian Movement, and John Gotti in the government's last show trial). Kunstler, with his glasses perpetually pushed up above his long flowing locks, was also persistently attacked for self-promotion and flamboyance.
"Actually," Pizzi reconsiders, "I kind of identify more with Erin Brockovich." The single mother and inexperienced legal assistant in 1993 discovered that Pacific Gas & Electric was involved in contaminating the drinking water in Hinkley, California, which caused devastating illnesses among its residents.
"Somehow, I doubt push-up bras, tight skirts, and fishnet stockings are your style," I suggest.
Pizzi tilts his head back and laughs heartily. "Can you imagine if I showed up to a county commission meeting dressed like Erin Brockovich?" Pizzi snorts. "Now that would be something."
Then he gets serious again. His intense blue eyes gaze into the Northwest Miami-Dade horizon, bathed in pink and purple as the sun sets just past the Everglades. "Could you imagine if I had the subpoena power of the state prosecutor?" Pizzi says slowly, with relish. "I don't think people like Dunn, Robaina, and Mestre would be able to sleepat night!"