City of Sweetwater Mayor and Lobbyist Plead Guilty in Corruption Investigation
|U.S. Attorney’s Office November 13, 2013|
Wifredo A. Ferrer, United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, and Michael B. Steinbach, Special Agent in Charge, Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), Miami Field Office, announce that Manuel L. Maroño, 41, the former mayor of the city of Sweetwater, and Jorge L. Forte, 41, a lobbyist, both of Miami, pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud for their participation in a scheme to personally benefit through the use of Maroño’s position as mayor of Sweetwater.
Sentencing has been scheduled for January 23, 2014, at 10:00 a.m. before U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch. At sentencing, Maroño and Forte face a maximum statutory sentence of five years in prison.
U.S. Attorney Wifredo A. Ferrer stated, “Today, the former mayor of Sweetwater admitted under oath in court that he sold the power granted to him by the people of Sweetwater. It is vitally important that the people of South Florida have confidence in their elected officials and know that any abuse of their trust will not be tolerated. I hope that today’s timely resolution and guilty plea will make others think twice before lining their pockets with the greed of corruption.”
“Corrupt officials—either elected or appointed—are on notice; if they breach the public’s trust through stealing or accepting bribes in the course of their official duties, they will be vigorously investigated,” said Michael B. Steinbach, Special Agent in Charge, FBI Miami. “Public corruption remains a top priority for the FBI. We encourage anyone who may have information about corruption to come forward and report it. This information is vital to our work.”
On October 17, 2013, Maroño and Forte were charged by way of information with one count of conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud, in violation of 18 U.S.C. ' 371.
According to the facts admitted at today’s guilty plea and publically available information, Maroño was the elected mayor of the city of Sweetwater. In his elected position, Maroño served as the chief executive officer of the city of Sweetwater and was responsible for the management and administration of the city government. Forte, a lifelong friend of Maroño, was a lobbyist and business partner of Maroño.
Maroño and Forte admitted today that beginning in late November 2011, they agreed to aid a company known as Sunshine Universal to obtain federal grant funds for the stated reason of preparing an economic development study for Sweetwater, all in exchange for cash kickbacks to Maroño and Forte. Unknown to Maroño and Forte, Sunshine Universal was an undercover FBI entity. To aid the scheme, Maroño caused the passage of a resolution in Sweetwater that authorized the undercover agents’ company to apply for federal grant moneys using the authority of the city of Sweetwater. After the resolution was passed, Maroño and Forte personally met and negotiated with the undercover agents and accepted a series of cash payments in exchange for Maroño’s official actions in support of the grant scheme. During these negotiations and meetings, Forte acted as the front man for Maroño.
To further the scheme and avoid detection, Maroño also participated in what he believed to be audit telephone calls from the federal government to confirm the grantees’ performance on the grant. During two separate audit calls, both of which were recorded, Maroño lied to and misled the auditor, who was in fact an undercover FBI agent, about the actual use of the grant money and the grantee’s performance. For their corrupt actions, Maroño and Forte received $45,000. Both defendants have agreed to forfeit all the money they received as part of their plea agreements.
Mr. Ferrer commends the investigative efforts of the FBI Miami Area Corruption Task Force. This case is being prosecuted Assistant U.S. Attorneys Jared E. Dwyer and Robert K. Senior.
A copy of this press release may be found on the website of the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida at www.usdoj.gov/usao/fls.