You mean, there were only two?
That’s one of the questions I am left with after Tuesday’s big news that Sweetwater Mayor Manny Maroño and Miami Lakes Mayor Michael “Muscles” Pizzi were arrested on federal bribery and extortion charges.
Ladra is not too surprised that these two mayors — both of whom have been accused of abusing their power in the past — bit at the chance to scam the federal government and get themselves some grant dollars to split with some shady businessmen who turned out to be FBI agents on a sting operation.
Yes, it was a surprise because — unlike local investigations that get leaked all the time — nobody saw this coming. And of all the electeds we expected to see led away in handcuffs any minute now, these two would not make the top of my list. No, that esteemed place would go, today, to Homestead Mayor Steve Bateman , who is being investigated for influence peddling, and Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez, who should be investigated for abuse of power and his admitted role in Hialeah’s shadow banking industry.
So what surprises me is that the feds didn’t catch more fish.
I mean, they went to a local lobbyist and said they were looking for a few corrupt electeds to help them out with some fake grant applications, and in our rich ethically-challenged environment, they only got two?
Did they go to the wrong lobbyist?
Because two lobbyists, Richard Candia and Jorge Forte — former chiefs of staffs for U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart and Maroño, repsectively — were also implicated in the criminal endeavor. But it seems that Candia was the point person for the FBI, involved in both mayors’ extortion deals.
Of course, we may not have all the information yet. This could be the tip of the iceberg. Ladra fully expects other leads to have been discovered during the time that federal agents had these men followed and wiretapped.
And even this investigation may be more interesting than we know it to be now.
While the Miami Herald’s constantly-updated scoop-of-the-year story last said that the feds could not convince anybody else to buy into their fake federal grant graft (and, by the way, the public deserves to know who these “good guys” are, too), there has been mention of a payoff, at least to Maroño — who happens to be president of the Florida League of Cities — for “introductions” to other politicians in a position to help.
“Since this Affidavit is being submitted for the limited purpose of establishing probable cause in support of a criminal complaint, I have not included each and every fact known to me concerning this investigation. I have set forth only the facts that I believe are necessary to establish the probable cause for the issuance of a complaint,” states FBI Special Agent Paul James Wright, in the affidavit supporting the arrest warrant.
Some law enforcement sources I know say the arrest Tuesday seemed rush, even though the investigation was started two years ago from an informant’s tip. That rush might be due to the fact that a bigger target came into view, even if it is on something other than the bogus grant deals.
Because there have to be bigger fish that these guys — facing 20 years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees — can offer up to make their situations more, um, palatable.
Maroño and Forte are partners in a company, 7 Strategies, that works to provide consulting to businesses that want government contracts. And if the mayor offered to provide the scam new business leads, I want to know who they are. Don’t you?
And Candia is a well-connected lobbyist told the undercover agents, in taped conversations that he was “80 percent sure” that Maroño would participate. How would he know that? He must have knowledge of prior “participation” in prior scams that should now come to light. fIn the colorful, detail-filled affidavits that read like fiction and which Ladra is still combing through, Candia also said Maroño would not be “shy to ask for sh^*.”
Maybe the mayor won’t be shy to talk with the feds, either.
Candia works with the even more-connected Jose Luis “El Chino” Fuentes — who raises money for a lot of politicians — and Ladra knows she has seen Candia’s name on some campaign finance reports recently.
We’ll have to go back and look. Maybe the next arrests won’t be such a big surprise.