Mayor and City Council Members Indicted on Extortion Charges
MIAMI (AP) _ The mayor of Sweetwater three city council members were indicted Thursday by a federal grand jury on extortion charges, the U.S. Attorney announced.
Mayor Irain Gonzalez and council members Carmen Menendez, Hugo Alvarez and Antonio Duran are accused of using their public positions to extort money from a local businessman who wanted them to reverse a land-use restriction, said U.S. Attorney Dexter Lehtinen.
″Public corruption by elected officials strikes at the heart of democracy,″ Lehtinen said.
″Five of seven members of Sweetwater’s city council were involved in this extortion attempt,″ he alleged. He apparently counted Gonzalez, who is a council member as well as mayor, and one of two other council members not included in the indictment.
Gonzalez, Menendez, Alvarez and Duran each face a maximum of 40 years in prison and a fine of $500,000, Lehtinen said.
Lehtinen said he notified Gov. Bob Martinez of the indictment Thursday and that the governoake a decision on the matter. He said the governor was awaiting written confirmation of the indictment.
″We’re aware of the situation and our attorneys are still looking at it,″ Peck said.
The other two city councilmen, Manuel Avila and Lucio Cobian, have cooperated with Lehtinen’s office and have agreed to testify on behalf of the government, he said.
Cobian has agreed to plead guilty to one extortion charge and Avila is an ″unindicted co-conspirator,″ Lehtinen said.
The indictment stems from a request made by Maurice Barakat in June 1989 asking the council to lift a land-use restriction. Barakat, who owns the Holiday Plaza Shopping Center, had sold part of the land, which left him with less than the five acres necessary for commercial zoning.
Barakat asked the city council to remove the restriction so he could sell the additional commercial units more easily, the indictment said. The defendants allegedly told Barakat he would have to pay them $10,000 in exchange for a favorable council vote on his request.
Instead, Barakat went to the FBI.
The councilmen voted to continue delaying action on Barakat’s request until he paid the money, the indictment alleged. Barakat paid Menendez $5,000 with FBI agents watching, but then was asked to pay $6,000 more, according to the indictment.
The city officials are expected to surrender Friday through their attorneys and make their first appearance in federal court Friday afternoon, Lehtinen said.
Sweetwater, known in the 1960s as a rural outpost in western Dade County, has recently become a haven for political exiles from Central America.