New Details Emerge in Federal Case Against Mayor Manuel Maroño and Jorge Forte
When Sweetwater Mayor Manuel Maroño and his alleged bagman, lobbyist Jorge Forte, were arrested in early August on federal bribery charges, the FBI alleged the duo also collected referral fees for attempting to recruit other South Florida mayors into their scheme. Those elected officials, whom the FBI has not identified, didn't take the bait, according to Maroño's arrest affidavit. So who were they? And more important, did they suspect Forte was only looking to line his and Maroño's pockets, as the FBI claims?
(In addition to Maroño and Forte, the feds also arrested Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi and lobbyist Richard Candia for accepting bribes. Gov. Rick Scott suspended Pizzi and Maroño from office the day they were arrested. All four are free on bond.)
Through a tipster, Banana Republican has learned that two politicians Forte contacted were Hialeah Gardens Mayor Yioset de la Cruz and Pembroke Pines Mayor Frank Ortis, both of whom sponsored resolutions in their respective cities to use the services of Sunshine Universal LLC, a nonprofit company that claimed it had the inside track to obtain federal grants for job creation and economic development.
In reality, Sunshine Universal is a fake company set up by the FBI to ensare Maroño and Forte (as well as Pizzi and Candia). Both men allegedly collected $40,000 in kickbacks from the firm's owners, who were actually undercover agents, for helping Sunshine Universal obtain the grant application approved in Sweetwater and other cities they recruited.
Maroño's arrest affidavit claims he and Forte identified "various other public officials" who "might participate in the same type of grant scheme." The document states Maroño and Forte were paid $20,000 after they introduced Sunshine Universal's owners to four public officials during three separate meetings in April, May, and June of last year. The affidavit claims that none of those unnamed public officials participated in the scheme.
However, Ortis and de la Cruz were instrumental in helping Sunshine Universal in Pembroke Pines and Hialeah Gardens, respectively. But neither mayor seemed to know about the alleged scam, according to public records obtained by Banana Republican, as well as an interview with de la Cruz.