The former president of the labor union local representing maritime workers at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale went on trial in federal court Tuesday, accused in a 17-count indictment of using false documents to steal thousands of dollars in union funds.And the Pizzi case is off and running, with opening statements this morning (via The Miami Herald):
Darryl Brice "Mike D" Payne, 47, of Sunrise, was president of a union that represents workers who are primarily employed loading and unloading cargo and providing services for the shipping and cruise industries at Port Everglades and elsewhere in Broward County.
Payne used union money to pay for personal travel expenses to Las Vegas, Baltimore, St. Louis and other cities, as well as to buy sports memorabilia, including a signed Miami Heat basketball, according to a 55-page indictment filed in August.
Among the charges are conspiracy to steal union assets, stealing union assets, endeavoring to obstruct justice, mail fraud and making false statements.
The charges carry penalties of between five and 20 years in prison, as well as substantial fines.
Payne, who still works as a crane operator at Port Everglades, was portrayed by his defense attorney Bruce Zimet as a reform-minded labor leader who was targeted by union rivals after he won the presidency of International Longshoremen's Association, AFL-CIO, Local Union No. 1526 in 2007.
The local has more than 800 members, according to its website.
"He implemented change to move the union into the 21st century," Zimet said in his opening statement. "Some were unhappy and formed a campaign to undermine that. Right away they're trying to destroy him."
Prosecutor William Shockley began his case by showing jurors several documents in support of the government's contention that Payne submitted false invoices and work records to cover personal expenses and inflate his years of seniority.
One of the first witnesses to testify was Denise Rodgers, former executive director of the Sistrunk Historical Festival in Fort Lauderdale, a civic organization that had honored Payne in 2008 for what she called his "outstanding contribution to the community."
At a silent auction that year, Payne successfully bid on the signed Heat basketball, a football autographed by former NFL star defensive end Michael Strahan, and a spa massage. The total contribution for all three came to $380, Rodgers testified.
Prosecutors alleged in its indictment that Payne used union funds to pay for those purchases by using a false invoice to lump them in with other legitimate expenses paid to the Historical Festival as charitable donations.
The mail-fraud charge relates to an alleged scheme to deceive officials of the union's pension fund by presenting an altered U.S. Department of Labor document that made it appear as if Payne had received workers' compensation for four years.
In fact, however, Payne had received workers' compensation payments for only about four months, prosecutors allege. Payne submitted the altered document, the government alleges, in order to add years to his seniority and thus increase his pension.
In opening statements, prosecutors will argue that Pizzi pocketed bribes from a now-convicted Miami-Dade County lobbyist and undercover agents posing as sleazy businessmen. They persuaded the mayor to support bogus federal grant proposals purportedly to spur job growth in his community and a neighboring town.
They will contend Pizzi intentionally grabbed the money to line his pockets -- a total of $6,750 -- knowing that Miami Lakes and Medley, where he worked as the town attorney, would not be benefiting from any federal grants.
Pizzi’s defense team will counter that he did not receive some of that cash from the lobbyist, Richard Candia, and the FBI undercover agents claiming to be executives of the phony grant-writing business, Sunshine Universal.
His attorneys will also assert that Pizzi did accept some of that money, but it was a legitimate reimbursement for his own political campaign expenses.
And, they will argue that Pizzi always believed that the federal grant proposals would help Miami Lakes and Medley -- and that they were not a scam.
It's supposed to be summer time!