August 14, 2014 / 8:55 PM / in 3 years

Former Florida mayor acquitted on federal extortion charges

MIAMI (Reuters) - A federal jury acquitted a Miami-area mayor on Thursday on charges that he accepted thousands of dollars from FBI agents during an undercover sting operation.

Former Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi, 51, was arrested last August and pleaded not guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit extortion and four counts of attempted extortion. The jury acquitted him on all counts after almost two days of deliberations, his lawyers said.

If convicted he would have faced a maximum 40 years in prison.

In closing statements on Tuesday, prosecutors attempted to paint Pizzi as a corrupt politician who took envelopes of cash in backroom deals in exchange for awarding city contracts to FBI agents posing as representatives of a Chicago consulting firm.

Federal prosecutors charged that Pizzi accepted $750 in campaign contributions and three cash payments of $1,000 to $3,000 each from early 2012 to mid-2013 for his support.

”While we are disappointed with the outcome in this case, we respect the jury’s verdict,” said U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer.

Pizzi’s defense rehashed the former mayor’s record as a self-described “leading gadfly,” parole officer and longtime public official.

One of his attorneys Ed Shohat framed the investigation, which hinged on the cooperation of a lobbyist-turned-informant and the testimony of the convicted “bag man” in the case, as entrapment.

Shohat said Pizzi agreed to support the contract long before an offer was made, and that agents repeatedly tried to coerce Pizzi into asking for money.

“There was no explicit quid pro quo,” Shohat said.

Pizzi is one of several Miami-area politicians to be charged with public corruption in the last year, and the second to be acquitted.

Former Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina was acquitted by a federal jury in April on charges of conspiring to avoid paying taxes on $2 million in income and lying to authorities.

Pizzi was indicted along with Manuel Maroño, a former mayor of Miami suburb Sweetwater. Maroño began serving a 40-month sentence in February after pleading guilty to accepting thousands in kickbacks for signing off on bogus government grant applications.

The mayor of North Miami was also suspended from office in May a day after she was charged as part of an alleged $8 million mortgage fraud scheme.

Editing by David Adams and Lisa Shumaker

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