Fla. mayor in kickback scheme reportedly being looked at in connection with larger corruption ring

FILE: August 2013: Sweetwater Mayor Manny Marono leaving a federal courthouse in Miami after his Aug. 6 arrest on political corruption charges, Miami, Fla.

FILE: August 2013: Sweetwater Mayor Manny Marono leaving a federal courthouse in Miami after his Aug. 6 arrest on political corruption charges, Miami, Fla.  (Carl Juste / Miami Herald staff )

A Miami-area mayor who recently pleaded guilty to a kickback scheme reportedly is being looked at in connection with a larger corruption ring potentially involving the city police department and a growing list of City Hall and business cronies.

The FBI investigation began with agents looking into allegations that city of Sweetwater Mayor Manny Marono was taking kickbacks in exchange for supporting a bogus grant program that benefited only him and his cronies.

Marono and lobbyist friend Jorge Forte were arrested in August and pleaded guilty last month to federal charges of splitting $60,000 in kickbacks.

“Corrupt officials -- either elected or appointed -- are on notice,” said FBI special agent Michael B. Steinbach. “If they breach the public’s trust through stealing or accepting bribes in the course of their official duties, they will be vigorously investigated.”

Now investigators are looking into the ex-mayor, police officers and potentially others in connection with more questionable activities -- including a second alleged kickback scheme connected to a towing business that Marono once owned and in which he is suspected of still being a silent partner, according to The Miami Herald.

The firm -- Southland The Towing Company – had a no-bid agreement with Sweetwater (pop. 21,000) that has filled city coffers with fines controlled by a police commissioner who has recently resigned and included thousands of dollars that disappeared from an evidence room.

In addition, the agreement also led to Southland impounding vehicles and selling them at auction, resulting in a federal class-action suit in which roughly 100 plaintiffs claim their vehicles were improperly taken and sold after they were detained on bogus charges and forced to pay hundreds of dollars in fines.

Investigative reporting by the newspaper and local TV station CBS4 also found evidence of a police department with myriad problems including a secret police evidence room, dozens of officers hired after leaving other law-enforcement agencies under questionable circumstances, three officers suspected of beating suspects, and one high-ranking officer, who has since left, that is a convicted drug smuggler.

Marono is scheduled to be sentenced next month in the grant kickback scheme and faces a maximum five years in prison.

“I made a mistake and I’m here to accept responsibility and move on,” he said after pleading guilty.

But Marono is not talking about the ongoing towing probe beyond saying he left the company several years ago.

The list of Marono family members and friends connected to either City Hall or the towing company includes the owner and former owner; the city attorney, who has also represented Southland; Marono's mother, a city commissioner; and his wife, Sweetwater’s special-projects coordinator.