Michael Pizzi
Michael Pizzi ()

When suspended Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi walked on bribery charges, the federal public corruption case illustrated the pitfalls faced by prosecutors when trying to take down elected officials.

While federal and state prosecutors have had plenty of success exposing corrupt officials in Broward and Palm Beach counties and extracting guilty pleas, they often stumble at trial, especially in Miami.

Pizzi’s case joins the list of failed prosecutions of former Miami City Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones, who bested state bribery charges in 2011, and former Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina, who was acquitted of federal tax evasion in April.

Historically, other figures who have beaten high-profile prosecutions include Alcee Hastings, who survived a bribery case in the early 1980s and went on to become a congressman; Carmen Lunetta, the former Port of Miami director who beat back a money laundering case in 1999 but pleaded guilty to violating election laws; and former Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez, who was convicted, won a reversal on appeal and won at a third trial.

Pizzi was acquitted of taking $6,750 in bribes to support a crooked federal grant program. It turned out there wasn’t any grant program. It was all an FBI sting. But the case against Pizzi wasn’t based so much on surveillance as it was built on the word of convicted lobbyist Richard Candia, who pleaded guilty as a co-defendant.

Candia didn’t fare well as a witness under a defense orchestrated by Pizzi’s Miami attorneys Ed Shohat of Jones Walker and Ben Kuehne of the Law Office of Benedict P. Kuehne.

“There certainly have been colossal failures on part of both federal and state government in prosecuting public corruption just like there has been outstanding success. The key ingredient is the quality of the evidence,” Kuehne said. “They have been spectacularly unsuccessful when they simply suggest and speculate about wrongful conduct.”

Even Operation Court Broom in the 1990s, which saw Miami-Dade judges convicted of fixing cases, had its acquittals.

Different hurdles

Miami attorney Joseph DeMaria used to prosecute public corruption cases for the U.S. attorney’s office. He said they provide hurdles that other criminal cases do not.

“First of all, you are starting out with someone who is a legitimate person. They are someone the voters felt confident enough to elect,” said DeMaria, a partner at Fox Rothschild. “That is different from a street crime, a Mafia case, a drug case. In those cases, you start off with a person not being legitimate.”

The other reason public corruption cases are hard for prosecutors is that many are based on an undercover sting, he said.

“If they don’t do it right, if they don’t follow the evidence all the way, if you are going to try to set somebody up, you’ve got to follow the money all the way,” DeMaria said.

Pizzi is a good example of the FBI giving prosecutors just enough rope to hang themselves, said criminal defense attorneys interviewed for this article.

Candia, once a member of the government relations practice at the Becker & Poliakoff law firm, told an FBI informant posing as representative of a Chicago grant administration company that Pizzi would be a good target for a bribe. The sham was the grant money would be split among the players.

Candia testified he served as the bag man, making drops for Pizzi at the Miami Lakes Billiard Club and a Starbucks. But inexplicably the FBI never got Pizzi on video picking up the money.

In one instance, an undercover agent put $2,000 in with some cigars, which Pizzi promptly gave away because he wasn’t fan of the brand. A defense witness testified he found the empty bag with the money and pocketed the cash.

And that’s how the trial went for Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Senor and Jared Dwyer.

The government thought it had a good case. The sting already produced three guilty pleas: Sweetwater Mayor Manuel Maroño, Candia and Jorge Forte, another lobbyist.

Miami tax attorney David Garvin, who successfully defended Robaina, said when Pizzi balked at a plea, prosecutors were stuck with either going to trial or dropping the charges.

Garvin attended some of the trial. “I had to see for myself why they were bringing this case,” he said.

The Pizzi trial cost $500,000, Garvin said he learned from a source close to the case. “That’s $500,000 that could have been spent prosecuting many other cases and getting the opposite result,” he said.

An email request for comment on the cost of the trial from the U.S. attorney’s office was not returned by deadline.

Garvin said the amount of alleged bribes in the Pizzi case at less than $7,000 should have been a red flag for prosecutors. He said the case against Robaina and his wife, Raiza, involved millions of dollars. He called it a hybrid tax-corruption case. Robaina was charged with failing to report cash received as loan payments and lying to federal investigators about receiving undisclosed cash and his involvement in his wife’s businesses.

Prosecutorial ‘lust’

Garvin said prosecutors are still smarting from not being able to put away Martinez from 1991 to 1996. The intrepid former mayor of Hialeah was convicted of fraud, but it was overturned on appeal. A second trial ended in a hung jury, and a third in an acquittal on an extortion charge and deadlocks on five other counts. His name now adorns the Hialeah City Hall.

“It’s an issue whether or not when it comes to Hialeah, in particular, if there is a lust for some prosecutors who have not been so successful in Hialeah to even that score,” Garvin said. “Those kinds of things are not easily forgotten.”

Attorney Paul Calli, a partner at Carlton Fields Jorden Burt in Miami, said it’s an easy cop out for prosecutors to blame trial losses on the difficulty of bringing public corruption cases. He said it “smacks of sour grapes” and is “code speak” for demeaning the work of careful, attentive juries.

Prosecutors get what they deserve when they build their cases on sting cases scripted to lure people into criminal acts, Calli said. Juries know if a quid pro quo selling of public office has occurred, he said.

“Because these cases almost always have video and audio recordings, how can a prosecutor credibly complain ‘they’re hard to prove’? Of course, it’s hard to prove a crime when no crime occurred,” Calli said. “The time for prosecutors to be introspective is before they rush to charge a crime, not after they lose at trial.”

Kuehne echoes those sentiments, saying the case against Pizzi should never have been brought.

“This was a case of the government virtue testing, targeting somebody who did not have the slightest inclination to get involved in misconduct,” he said.