Days following his August 6 arrest on federal bribery charges, Michael Pizzi was walking around shell-shocked and despondent. In a blockbuster moment for public corruption fighters, the Federal Bureau of Investigations had nabbed the Miami Lakes mayor, his counterpart in Sweetwater Manuel Maroño, and two lobbyists allegedly accepting payoffs in a pair of separate undercover stings. Gov. Rick Scott swiftly suspended both mayors from office in a scandal that made national headlines.
Even by Miami-Dade's shady record of politicians doing the perp walk, the bust of two sitting mayors on the same morning was a shocker that no one saw coming, especially Pizzi. Slumped over a sofa at Billiard Club in Miami Lakes a week after his fall, Pizzi looked defeated. "I'm done," he said. "It's over."
What a difference a month makes.
During a recent follow-up meeting with Banana Republican, Pizzi was his old pugnacious self. For the first time since his arrest, he went on the record, specifically about the man who served him up to the feds: Michael Kesti, a Palmetto Bay lobbyist and businessman who was outed by the Miami Herald as the unnamed FBI paid informant who helped build the case against both mayors.
"I didn't do anything wrong," Pizzi says. "I will be exonerated. If anyone perpetrated fraud, it was Kesti."
Kesti hung up on Banana Republican before we could ask him for a response. He also did not return messages sent via text and email.
According to Pizzi's arrest affidavit, he allegedly accepted $6,000 in cash and $750 in campaign contributions in exchange for pushing through two resolutions in Miami Lakes and Medley (where he was town attorney) authorizing him to apply for federal grants through a Chicago-based outfit named Sunshine Univerisal. It was really a fake company set up by the feds to fool Pizzi. Kesti vouched for the two undercover FBI agents posing as Sunshine's owners.
Pizzi accuses Kesti, for a lucrative payday as a snitch, misled him and manipulated him into pushing through the two resolutions. He notes a healthcare company owned by Kesti that was forced into bankruptcy by its creditors in 2000 had the case discharged a month before his arrest. "I have more integrity in the nail of my little finger than a thousand paid informants like Kesti," Pizzi grouses.
Of the two mayors, Pizzi definitely has a best shot of beating the charges. Unlike Maroño, Pizzi was never caught by the feds explicitly affirming he was for sale. The alleged recorded conversations simply reference Pizzi hitting up Kesti and the undercover agents for campaign contributions. Shockingly, the affidavit contains alleged recorded conversations between Pizzi, Kesti and an undercover G-man in which the Miami Lakes official has doubts about the deal.
For instance, on Feb. 29 of last year, when the agent needed an endorsement letter, he told Pizzi: "You understand this shit is bogus. What we are doing here is just grabbing money."
The mayor replied: "I can't do it if it's just bogus. That I can't do."
In the days that followed, according to emails Pizzi provided Banana Republican, Kesti relentlessly hounded him to write the letter. As part of his wooing campaign, Kesti invited him to fete at Miami City Hall on March 14, 2012. Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado was hosting the party to celebrate the launch of the spirits company, Miami Club Rum LLC, a firm Kesti represented.
"Kesti lied to me, insisting this was a legitimate grant that would benefit the two towns and that these undercover guys had credibility," Pizzi grouses. "Kesti is not deep throat. He's the Watergate burglar."
Pizzi is free on $100,000 bond. His arraignment is scheduled for September 20.
Writer's note: A previous version of this post incorrectly identified Kesti's role with Miami Club Rum LLC. The company's owner Matt Malone tells Banana Republican Kesti was only retained as a lobbyist. Kesti did not have an executive position or ownership stake in Miami Club Rum LLC.
Follow Francisco Alvarado on Twitter: @thefrankness.
Keep Miami New Times Free... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Miami with no paywalls.