On a summer morning, FBI agents came knocking on lobbyist Jorge Forte’s door. He admitted that he and his longtime friend, Sweetwater Mayor Manuel Maroño, were splitting thousands of dollars in kickbacks in exchange for official favors.
Forte quickly agreed to cooperate in the FBI’s sting operation and arranged to meet the mayor in the lobbyist’s car outside city hall in early August. Forte, wearing a recording device, handed Maroño $5,000 in cash — a bribe from a sham Chicago company that had roped both men into a phony federal-grant scheme.
Forte’s flipping on his friend was revealed for the first time Wednesday, when the former political allies and business partners pleaded guilty to a corruption conspiracy charge in Fort Lauderdale federal court. The honest-services fraud charge accused them of illegally splitting $60,000 in cash and checks for official favors and concealing those payments from the public.
Maroño, 41, who had served as Sweetwater’s mayor for the past decade, faces at least three years in prison at a Jan. 23 sentencing hearing. But Forte, also 41, is likely to receive a much lower sentence because he was not a public official and, more significantly, he helped the feds seal their case against the now-suspended Sweetwater mayor.
Their demise as movers and shakers in local politics — Maroño was also close to Gov. Rick Scott — reverberated throughout Miami-Dade County.