Pizzi settlement is done, Miami Lakes town attorney tells council

Government By Linda Trischitta, Editor Thursday, June 13, 2024

Miami Lakes will pay former Mayor Michael Pizzi $1.625 million for legal fees for his defense in a federal criminal case, a decision that ends a decade of courtroom battles and payments to lawyers.

After a jury found in 2014 that Pizzi was not guilty of conspiracy to commit extortion and bribery, he wanted the town pay more than $2.5 million to his lawyers and sued. Reimbursement of a public official’s legal fees is allowed in Florida.

Pizzi told The Miami Laker on June 7 that he and the town agreed that the municipality will pay him $1.625 million in three payments made over three fiscal years, ending in January 2026.

“I am happy this got resolved and I’m happy that after more that 10 years, we can all put this issue behind us and move forward,” Pizzi said.

In addition to the settlement money that will be paid to Pizzi, the town has spent a total of $1,965,490 in legal fees in the case, Miami Lakes Chief Financial Officer Kay M. Grant said in an email. 

That money came from legal reserves as well as general fund reserves derived from tax revenues, fees, fines and forfeitures and other sources, she said.

Insurance reimbursement to the town is $574,770 so far; it is awaiting another insurance payment of $125,230, Grant said.

“The way litigation was going, there were significant rulings by the court, new judges came on and it didn’t look good for the town,” Miami Lakes Town Attorney Raul Gastesi told The Miami Laker.

Town Manager Edward Pidermann said of the settlement, “It will give us more certainty moving forward, knowing that this cloud is no longer over our heads. It is a boatload of money. For the next couple of years, it’s going to be painful but will bring an end to a horrible saga.”

Pizzi was mayor in 2013 when the FBI arrested him in a sting, and former Gov. Rick Scott suspended him from office. After Pizzi was acquitted and reinstated as mayor, he sought to recover the costs of his defense.

Since 2015, the town has fought paying Pizzi’s attorneys and previously cited a policy that would allow it to decide whether to provide a lawyer for a town official, according to court documents. It also disputed amounts of some of the attorneys’ fees.

“It’s time [to settle],” Town Attorney Raul Gastesi told the council during its May 14, 2024 meeting. Going to trial in August and continuing to fight the case was too risky and would be expensive, he said.

Council members Josh Dieguez and Bryan Morera, who are both attorneys, and Council members Luis Collazo and Marilyn Ruano, all said then that though they felt the town was in the right, it was in Miami Lakes’ best interest to end the fight.

“We have one opportunity to settle and it’s today,” Collazo said, having attended numerous executive sessions on the case. “Over my dead body are we going to continue putting the residents last.”

Mayor Manny Cid, Vice Mayor Tony Fernandez and Councilman Ray Garcia voted against paying Pizzi. Fernandez said, “It is the wrong time to capitulate,” “a bitter pill” and that it wasn’t the right thing to do for residents.

Cid said he didn’t know the settlement amount in advance of the council meeting and preferred the money go toward hiring more cops and providing additional benefits to them.

Dieguez said then that defendants who continue a court battle as a matter of principle are the kind of clients that litigators want to have.

“They’re going to spend money and money and money and the next thing you know, they’ve lost a lot more than the original case is worth,” Dieguez said. … “For those clients willing to pay that, great. Attorneys love that.

“But we’re not in the private sector, we’re in the public sector,” Dieguez said. “Continuing this case is requiring our taxpayers, including ourselves, [to continue] to spend money for the hope that we might be proven right at the end. How much more money will we spend?”

He said tax dollars that would be spent on continuing to fight the Pizzi case could instead go toward municipal wish list items such as adding a police officer, trimming the tree canopy and cleaning parks.

After the split vote, Gastesi had authority to make the offer.

During the June 11 council meeting, Gastesi reported that the settlement was finalized and the first installment will be paid in July. Cid insisted the town could still prevail in court and that “the facts are on our side.”

Pizzi said about the negotiations and payment schedule, “Great efforts were made to work with the town to do this in a way that minimized the budgetary impact. I embraced that and worked toward that.”

As for the criminal case, Pizzi said, “I’m very proud of the fact that when I was falsely accused by the overwhelming powers of the Justice Department and federal government that I fought back and proved my innocence and was acquitted.”

Thinking about his legacy as mayor, Pizzi said, “I just hope the focus will be on the stuff I accomplished for the [town], such as building [Town] Hall, the youth center, opening [Northwest] 87th Avenue and working over two decades to better people’s lives.”

Pizzi is an attorney with his own firm and represents municipal employees.