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8 posts from August 6, 2013

August 06, 2013

Two lobbyists, two Miami-area mayors and an FBI sting that reads like 'The Wire'


Richard Candia, the center of a fraud and bribery scandal that resulted in the arrests of two mayors, was known to fellow South Florida lobbyists as a shy clean-cut honest person.

But FBI recordings show Candia was a schemer and bribe-carrying bagman who readily recruited Sweetwater Mayor Manny Maroño and Miami Lakes Mayor Mike Pizzi into a scheme to defraud the federal government. First day story is here.

Caught on audio surveillance, the men all arranged illegal payments in a grant-fraud scheme during a series of meetings that took place at a Miami Heat basketball game, restaurants throughout the county, and a Miami Lakes pool hall where the FBI says Pizzi took a payment of $2,000 and two cigars in a Ziploc bag.

“[Maroño]'s not gonna be shy, shy to ask for shit. I mean there will be no end,” Candia told an undercover agent who brought him into the scheme to act as a recruiter of corrupt officials.

Candia was approach by a paid confidential informant in May 2011 with the scheme: Use a dummy Chicago company to fraudulently draw in federal grant money under the guise of needed projects in the respective cities.

It’s unclear if Maroño and Pizzi knew of the other’s alleged scheme.

Maroño went a step further than Pizzi, allegedly, and tried to recruit leaders of other municipalities by parlaying his role as Florida League of Cities leader. Maroño appeared to make more incriminating statements than Pizzi and allegedly referred to one payoff as a “souvenir.”

Maroño used his self-described “righthand man,” Jorge Luis Forte, to carry the money, the FBI said.

“If you talk to [FORTE], you talk to me," Maroño said at one point to the undercover entities.

“In Miami-Dade County, you want something from him, you don't call him, you call me,” Forte allegedly said. “It's just the way it works.”

In return for a portion of the fake grant’s proceeds, the FBI said, Maroño and Pizzi had to make bogus certifications for the dummy company that would receive the federal money through the respective cities.

Maroño said he needed to recruit mayors who know how to lie well, a trait he described as “knowing that you're fucking lying, but you gotta be able to have that charisma, to be able to pull it off, to bullshit her.”

Pizzi, who spoke more of city pride and solicited money directly for his campaign efforts, had far less swagger than Maroño.

He appeared to fear his office was bugged at one point, and pulled Candia into a closet to allegedly take a bribe.

But the office wasn’t bugged.

By this point, Candia had turned informant and was wearing a wire.

“I have reviewed, you can hear what I believe to be the opening of a door,” Paul J. Wright says in his affidavit.

The transcript reads like a script:

Pizzi: “Here, here.. What you got?”
[CANDIA provided PIZZI with the envelope of $3,000 in cash.]
Candia: “That's three.”
Pizzi: “OK. You did good.”

Enjoy the indictments.

Download Pizzi, Michael et al Complaint

Download Marono, Manuel et al Complaint

Scott, Cabinet OK health care forms despite claims they 'mislead'

An excerpt from a story in Wednesday's paper:

Gov. Rick Scott and the three-member Florida Cabinet have signed off on a controversial new disclosure form that critics say is intended to poison Floridians against the health care law.

The Florida Legislature passed a law requiring the form after Republicans argued that policyholders need to know how federal reforms will affect their premiums. Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater — all Republicans — on Tuesday approved the disclosure forms unanimously and with no debate.

In recent weeks, critics have said the forms are useless and any efforts to compare policies that comply with the health care law to those that don't is "fuzzy math."

"It's totally about politics, and, probably more importantly, it's an incredible waste of money," said Bill Newton, executive director of Florida Consumer Action Network, which supports the federal health care law.

Prior to a vote, Putnam referred to the Office of Insurance Regulation's report that said individual plans would have an average increase of 30 to 40 percent under the federal law. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has questioned those estimates.

"Across the country we have seen press announcements by state insurance commissioners that consistently indicate substantial increases in premiums to the consumer, especially in that individual market," Putnam said after the meeting.

Read more here.

Florida Virtual School cuts 177 full-time positions

Florida Virtual School, the state's online public school, shed 177 full-time positions on Monday, spokeswoman Tania Clow said.

The cuts, which eliminated about 10 percent of the full-time staff, were needed because pre-enrollment dipped 32 percent from last summer, Clow said.

Officials at Florida Virtual blamed a change to the state's education financing formula that went into effect this year. Under the new rules, traditional school systems receive fewer dollars than last year for students who enroll in one or more online courses.

In May, Florida Virtual School CEO Julie Young predicted the change would discourage school districts from enrolling their students in FLVS courses. The state education department followed up with a memo reminding superintendents that they could not limit online enrollment for financial reasons.

State Rep. Erik Fresen, a Miami Republican who chairs the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee, said the change to the funding formula was needed because Florida Virtual School was receiving a disproportionately large share of state education dollars.  

"Nothing in the recalibrated formula leads to a financial condition where districts need to reject kids from going into virtual," Fresen told The Herald/Times last month.

Earlier this summer, Florida Virtual cut 625 part-time instructor positions, and decided against filling 24 open-part time positions. 

"The entire FLVS family is saddened by the new realities we are facing," Clow wrote in a statement.

Clow said the online school would continue to serve children "at the highest level."

Florida Virtual School serves about 130,000 students from across the state. Students can either enroll full time, or take one or more classes in addition to their coursework at a traditional school.

Senate Democratic Leader calls for select committee on Stand Your Ground

When Casey Anthony was found not guilty of murdering her two-year-old daughter, Sen. Chris Smith was tapped to serve on a select committee examining Florida's child protection laws.

Two years later, Smith is calling for the formation of another select committee.

This time, he said, the focus should be Florida's controversial Stand Your Ground law.

"We once again face a similar situation in which a child is dead and the adult who admitted to shooting him walks free," Smith wrote in a letter to Senate President Don Gaetz on Monday.  "Unfortunately, while the calls for action on the part of the legislature continue to mount well beyond the state lines of Florida, there has been no similar effort on the part of the Senate to spring into action to examine 'whether changes need to be made to current Florida law.'"

Smith, of course, is referencing last month's aquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager from Miami.

"Surely, if we could so quickly muster the full power of the legislature to examine and improve a law at the center of a firestorm following the death of Caylee Anthony, we can do the same in the case of Trayvon Martin," Smith wrote.

A spokeswoman for Gaetz said he would have a response shortly.

Mayor Manny Maroño, early Rick Scott backer and appointee, busted in bribery case

@MarcACaputo via Jay Weaver:

FBI agents Tuesday arrested the mayors of Miami Lakes and Sweetwater on bribery charges related to government contracts in their towns.

Agents arrested Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi and Sweetwater Mayor Manuel “Manny” Maroño at their City Hall offices.

Pizzi and Maroño are expected to make their first appearances in Miami federal court Tuesday. It’s not clear yet how the cases are related.....

Maroño and former North Bay Village Manager Jorge Forte launched a public affairs and business development firm, 7 Strategies.

Forte and Maroño, who had known each other since high school, named the company in a reference to Scott’s seven-step plan to create 700,000 jobs in seven years. 7 Strategies is focused on strategies that forge “better ties” between clients and the public sector, the partners told The South Florida Business Journal in 2011. It also lobbies on behalf of some clients...

“We know how local government works, how the state works, how the county works and how the governor works – which is the most important part,” Maroño told the Business Journal. “We know how the governor works.”

Breaking news story here.

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/08/06/3545612/fbi-arrests-mayors-of-miami-lakes.html#storylink=cpy

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/08/06/3545612/fbi-arrests-mayors-of-miami-lakes.html#storylink=cpy

From backer to critic, Roger Stone blasts RX pot push as a Charlie Crist front


Florida political consultant Roger Stone had a falling out with a Florida medical-marijuana group and accused it Tuesday of acting like a front for Democrat Charlie Crist if he decides to run for governor next year.

“No Republicans or Democrats who aren't supporting Charlie Crist need apply,” Stone wrote on his Stone Zone blog Tuesday, noting Crist works for the head of People United for Medical Marijuana.

PUFMM’s de facto manager, Ben Pollara, denied Stone’s claims as "untrue" and disputed his interpretation of the proposed constitutional amendment as well.

“Roger is a complicated character as you know,” Pollara said, declining to discuss the falling out with the libertarian consultant once known for being a GOP dirty-trickster.

Continue reading "From backer to critic, Roger Stone blasts RX pot push as a Charlie Crist front" »

UPDATE: Bullard asks Cabinet to pardon Marissa Alexander

State Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, is hoping the Florida Cabinet will help secure a pardon for Marissa Alexander.

Alexander was sentenced to 20 years in prison after firing what she described as a warning shot at her husband. She tried to claim immunity under the state's controversial Stand Your Ground law, but was found guilty.

Bullard penned letters about the case to Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater last week. 

"Considering these unique circumstances, I would like to formally request that you support the recommendation to pardon Marissa Alexander," Bullard wrote in the letter to Bondi. "Ms. Alexander took precautionary steps to protect herself from unwanted danger. The Stand You Ground defense and exoneration should have applied to Ms. Alexander’s case."

Gov. Rick Scott would need at least two members of the Cabinet to start the pardon process.

At a Cabinet meeting Tuesday, Putnam said he had not yet received Bullard's letter.

"I take our clemency responsibility very seriously," he said. "I look forward to receiving Sen. Bullard's letter and looking into that case to the extent that that case is ripe for clemency action."

Scott said he had referred Bullard to General Counsel Pete Antonacci.

-- Herald/Times staff writer Tia Mitchell contributed reporting.

Download Letter to Attorney General Bondi for Marissa Alexander (1)

Download Letter to Chief Financial Officer Atwater for Marissa Alexander

Download Letter to Commissioner Putnam for Marissa Alexander

Gov. Scott names Rep. Fasano to Pasco tax collector's post

Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday morning appointed Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, as tax collector for Pasco County, replacing the late Mike Olson, who died in June.

Scott's office confirmed that the governor placed a phone call to the veteran lawmaker shortly after 8 a.m. and offered him the position. Fasano will hold the office through November 2014, when he will have to fun for a new term. The post pays more than $136,000 a year, or nearly five times as much as a state legislator's salary.

Scott interviewed Fasano for the post last Friday when the two men met face-to-face in Boca Raton, and the governor also conferred with a key Pasco County political leader, House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. Weatherford was one of about a dozen Pasco leaders who signed a letter endorsing Fasano for the job. When that letter reached the governor's office late Monday, it clearly signaled that momentum had swung in Fasano's direction.

Fasano, 55, a Republican, is an unconventional choice for the position because he has been a persistent critic of Scott, especially on the issues of Medicaid expansion and property insurance. Fasano made the awkward transition in 2012 from the Senate, which had been his home for a decade, back to the House, where he soon locked horns with Weatherford by criticizing the speaker's choice of a pro-industry lawmaker to chair the House Insurance Committee. Despite his seniority and extensive knowledge of policy issues, Fasano was not given a House committee chairmanship.

Fasano also is renowned for his commitment to strong constituent service, which is a cornerstone of any tax collector's position. Scott plans to travel to New Port Richey on Wednesday morning and personally announce the appointment.

Scott received dozens of letters about the appointment, with a number of people, including office employees, supporting Eileen Ferdinand for the position. Ferdinand was the top deputy to Mike Olson, a Democrat, who died June 25.

-- Steve Bousquet