When Sweetwater Mayor Manuel Maroño and his alleged bagman, lobbyist Jorge Forte, were arrested in early August on federal bribery charges, the FBI alleged the duo also collected referral fees for attempting to recruit other South Florida mayors into their scheme. Those elected officials, whom the FBI has not identified, didn't take the bait, according to Maroño's arrest affidavit. So who were they? And more important, did they suspect Forte was only looking to line his and Maroño's pockets, as the FBI claims?
(In addition to Maroño and Forte, the feds also arrested Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi and lobbyist Richard Candia for accepting bribes. Gov. Rick Scott suspended Pizzi and Maroño from office the day they were arrested. All four are free on bond.)
Through a tipster, Banana Republican has learned that two politicians Forte contacted were Hialeah Gardens Mayor Yioset de la Cruz and Pembroke Pines Mayor Frank Ortis, both of whom sponsored resolutions in their respective cities to use the services of Sunshine Universal LLC, a nonprofit company that claimed it had the inside track to obtain federal grants for job creation and economic development.
In reality, Sunshine Universal is a fake company set up by the FBI to ensare Maroño and Forte (as well as Pizzi and Candia). Both men allegedly collected $40,000 in kickbacks from the firm's owners, who were actually undercover agents, for helping Sunshine Universal obtain the grant application approved in Sweetwater and other cities they recruited.
Maroño's arrest affidavit claims he and Forte identified "various other public officials" who "might participate in the same type of grant scheme." The document states Maroño and Forte were paid $20,000 after they introduced Sunshine Universal's owners to four public officials during three separate meetings in April, May, and June of last year. The affidavit claims that none of those unnamed public officials participated in the scheme.
However, Ortis and de la Cruz were instrumental in helping Sunshine Universal in Pembroke Pines and Hialeah Gardens, respectively. But neither mayor seemed to know about the alleged scam, according to public records obtained by Banana Republican, as well as an interview with de la Cruz.
According to a June 11, 2012 email Forte sent Ortis, the lobbyist tells the mayor the city simply needs to pass the resolution authorizing Sunshine Universal to apply for a $100,000 grant. "We will not be asking for any agreement, contract, or financial payment from the City of Pembroke Pines," Forte wrote. "The city is never in any financial obligation to Sunshine Universal, LLC."
A month later, according to his emails, Ortis instructed his secretary to place the Sunshine Universal resolution on the Pembroke Pines City Commission agenda for August 1, 2012. The city commission passed the measure that day. Ortis did not respond to an email and a message left with his secretary seeking comment.
According to minutes for the Hialeah Gardens City Council meeting on August 21, 2012, City Attorney Charles Citrin explained Sunshine Universal's local representatives had offered to apply for the Americorps grant on behalf of the city. The application was subject to final approval by Mayor Yioset de la Cruz and the city council.
In a recent interview, Citrin says the application was presented as a "legitimate offer that would allow the city to obtain a grant to generate economic development and jobs for residents in Hialeah Gardens."
"There was no reason to suspect any wrongdoing," Citrin adds.
De la Cruz tells Banana Republican that he was approached by Forte and one of Sunshine Universal's owners about an opportunity that could bring employment to Hialeah Gardens. "They never offered any type of compensation, and a scheme was never mentioned," de la Cruz says. "It was simply a federal grant to help cities with a study to create jobs."
He says he instructed his staff to research Sunshine Universal's background. "When we began to ask questions about the company and how the grant worked, we never heard back from them," de la Cruz asserts. "The city never entered into contract with the company."
Reached on his cell phone, Forte referred questions to his criminal defense attorney, David Weinstein, who declined to comment. Spokespeople for the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office also refused to comment.
It's possible Maroño and Forte might have exaggerated to the undercover G-men that other elected officials might be persuaded to participate in their racket. Or the FBI possibly embellished Maroño's and Forte's abilities to corrupt others. It just seems odd that de la Cruz and Ortis would have no clue that the grant application was part of a fraud when the arrest affidavit emphatically states the undercover agents always affirmed that it was to whomever they made their pitch.
Follow Francisco Alvarado on Twitter: @thefrankness.
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