By Aaron Leibowitz, Miami Herald
The town of Miami Lakes must pay the legal fees its former mayor spent to successfully defend himself against criminal charges almost a decade ago, a Miami-Dade Circuit Court judge ruled Friday, potentially leaving taxpayers on the hook for millions of dollars.
The decision is a victory for Michael Pizzi in his protracted battle against the town, which refused to cover his legal bills after a federal jury cleared him of bribery allegations in 2014. Pizzi is also asking to be reimbursed for the cost of his eight-year civil case against the town over those legal defense fees.
Pizzi was seeking $3.5 million as of 2019, a number that has undoubtedly grown since. Judge Carlos Lopez has yet to rule on how much money the town owes him.
In an interview Friday, Pizzi said he was “ecstatic,” calling the ruling “an amazing victory and a complete vindication.”
“I am thankful that 10 long years after being completely exonerated and vindicated from a wrongful prosecution, the court has ordered the town to do what it was required to do 10 years ago,” Pizzi said.
Miami Lakes isn’t giving up yet. Town Attorney Raul Gastesi said Friday that officials are exploring their options, “including appeals and having the judge reconsider his ruling.”
“We’re disappointed with the order,” he said. “We will regroup and see what all our options are.”
The town argued in court filings that, even though Pizzi was acquitted, he was acting for personal gain and not for a public purpose when he allegedly accepted payments from undercover FBI agents. Prosecutors claimed Pizzi took the cash in exchange for supporting a grants program set up as part of the sting.
But Lopez said Pizzi’s vote for the grant did serve a public purpose, and that Pizzi didn’t need to rehash the allegations against him to prove his legal bills should be covered.
Lopez also rejected the town’s argument that Pizzi’s entrapment defense at trial constituted an admission of wrongdoing that could have cleared the town of liability.
“This Court disagrees with the Town’s assertion that former Mayor Pizzi is required to re-litigate the criminal case that led to the jury’s verdicts of acquittal of all public corruption charges,” Lopez wrote.
The FBI arrested Pizzi in August 2013 and accused him of accepting more than$6,000 in bribes during meetings in a smoky pool hall, a Starbucks and the closet of his office in Medley, where he was the town attorney.
Pizzi’s lawyers told jurors the mayor seemed disinterested in the scheme and wouldn’t bother returning phone calls from lobbyists who were working with the FBI agents. And his defense team offered various explanations for the alleged cash payments, including one in which they said Pizzi didn’t know a plastic bag containing two cigars also had $2,000 inside when the agents handed it to him. They said he gave the money away to a bar patron out of view of the agents.
Pizzi was reinstated as mayor after his acquittal before being defeated in 2016 by current mayor Manny Cid. He has since worked as an attorney who frequently represents municipal whistleblowers.
In 2019, the Third District Court of Appeal reversed a lower-court decision to quash Pizzi’s lawsuit against the town, giving his legal-fee battle new life.
The appeals court found that Miami Lakes’ own policies supported Pizzi’s claim that the town was on the hook, although it had the right to question the “reasonableness of the fees amount sought.”