Feds Case Against Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi Is Weak, Transcripts Suggest

Last summer, Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi was arrested on the same day the feds nabbed another local mayor, Sweetwater's Manuel Maroño. Both mayors were suspended form office by the governor and charged with taking bribes in exchange for bogus grants. While Maroño and two others, lobbyists Jorge Forte and Richard Candia, all pleaded guilty, Pizzi has refused to follow their lead.

Previously unreleased transcripts Riptide has obtained of secret recordings between Pizzi, a pair of undercover FBI agents, and two government informants suggests why: The feds don't have a smoking gun.

See also: Indicted Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi Vows to Beat Corruption Charges, Slams Informant

Pizzi, 51, is scheduled for trial on July 8 on charges that he accepted $6,750 in kickbacks from the undercover G-men posing as shady Chicago businessmen in exchange for supporting sham federal grant applications.

In the criminal complaint against Pizzi, the FBI alleges he accepted cash payments from Candia on two separate occassions. Once at Miami Lakes hangout The Billiard Club and a second time in Pizzi's closet at his old office in Medley, where he was the town attorney. Pizzi's attorneys maintain that the money were funds Pizzi solicited for his political action committee and charity work he did in Miami Lakes.

The new transcripts are part of a legal motion recently filed by Pizzi's criminal defense team to force federal prosecutors to disclose how much the FBI paid their star snitch, South Dade-based lobbyist Michael Kesti.

In the criminal complaint and Pizzi's motion appear to support that claim and that Kesti --codenamed "Stingray" by FBI agents -- tried to entrap Pizzi. (Kesti declined comment as he has in previous requests for interviews. A local FBI spokesman also did not want to comment.)

For instance, on February 29, 2012, after wining and dining the mayor at Smith & Wollensky in South Beach, one of the undercover agents posing as businessman "Andy Gardner" informed Pizzi that the grant they were applying for was a sham, according to the criminal complaint.

"You understand a lot of what we are doing is just bogus," Gardner said. "What we are doing here is just grabbing money."

"I can't do it if it's just bogus," Pizzi replied. "That I can't do."

The following morning, Kesti called him at the behest of the undercover agents, according to the transcripts in Pizzi's motion.

"But Andy is a legit guy?" Pizzi inquired. "You vouch for these guys?"

"Oh yeah," Kesti assured. "I am proud to say I am very picky with who I deal with."

Pizzi informed Kesti that he's uncomfortable with what Gardner told him. "They pissed me off in terms of the way they described the program," Pizzi said. "I am assuming it might have been the alcohol or just speaking out of turn or something like that. Quite frankly, I don't know why they felt the necessity to have a discussion like that."

Kesti couldn't get Pizzi to take the bait. "You got to admit, you came through for them like no one has," Kesti said. "They want you to know that and they want to share the wealth with you."

"I am as wealthy as I want to be," Pizzi replied. "I know they want to be nice and they want to do that. But in our position these days there are so many people out to get you. You gotta be fucking careful because people get the wrong impression you know what I am saying? I think you understand that...We are the good guys. We are the people trying to change things the right way."

On March 2, 2012, Kesti called Candia to let him know that "Mayor Pizzi was absolutely not on board with any corrupt activity," according to the transcripts.

Both lobbyists were able to convince Pizzi that Sunshine Universal would at least produce a feasibility study for Medley and Miami Lakes. In fact, nine months later, Pizzi felt comfortable enough to ask Gardner and Candia for a donation to his annual Christmas toy drive, according to the transcripts. He hit them up during a dinner at Don Shula's Steakhouse in Miami Lakes on December 13, 2013.

"Everybody contributed in helping purchase toys for a bunch of 12 and under kids," Pizzi said. "As usual Richard Candia and all of his people don't have two nickels to rub together and your contribution was zero."

Gardner assured the mayor he will make a donation. Later in the evening, Candia asks Gardner for the money. "Do you know what he is going to do with it, though?" Gardner asked.

"To buy toys for kids," Candia replied.

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Francisco Alvarado was born in Nicaragua and grew up in Miami, giving him unique insight into the Magic City and all its dark corners. An investigative reporter with a knack for uncovering corruption, Alvarado made his bones as a staff writer at Miami New Times and remains in dogged pursuit of the next juicy story.