Mount Vernon Mayor Richard Thomas has again turned to lawyers for his adviser Joseph Spiezio, this time to defend Thomas against criminal charges that he stole campaign funds and failed to report his personal use of inaugural funds.
Thomas has tapped Spiezio’s Florida legal team — Michael Pizzi and Ben Kuehne — as he prepares for trial in Westchester County Court. Pizzi is an outspoken South Florida attorney and former mayor of the town of Miami Lakes.
If Thomas was hoping for lawyers who know how to beat criminal charges, Pizzi and Kuehne could be his men.
Pizzi was found not guilty of federal corruption charges four years ago — and Kuehne was the lawyer who won the acquittal.
“We strongly believe in Mayor Thomas’ innocence and expect him to be vindicated,” Pizzi said in a phone interview Sunday.
While Pizzi declined to discuss specifics of the charges against Thomas, he called the case “a lot of overreaching” by state prosecutors. He questioned why they were targeting “a progressive small town mayor who’s been an agent of change” and suggested Thomas’ only mistakes were campaign violations, not crimes.
Amy Spitalnick, a spokeswoman for the New York Attorney General’s Office, would not address Pizzi’s criticism but expressed confidence in the state’s case.
“As we allege, (Thomas) used his campaign and inaugural accounts as personal slush funds – and then lied about it in his filings,” Spitalnick wrote in an email. “We look forward to proving our case in court.”
Pizzi would not discuss his ties to Spiezio, insisting they were not related to his defense of Thomas.
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He has been a lobbyist and registered agent for Spiezio’s garbage company in Florida and is currently a co-plaintiff with Spiezio in one lawsuit against the city of Opa-locka over its failure to release public records. Kuehne is an attorney on that lawsuit.
Pizzi would not say whether lawyer Randall Jackson is remaining on Thomas’ defense team. Jackson, a former federal prosecutor with the firm Boies Schiller Flexner, has represented the mayor since shortly before his indictment in May.
Pizzi and Jackson attended a conference with Westchester County Judge Barry Warhit and prosecutors late Friday afternoon. Beforehand, Jackson would not address whether he was being replaced. On Sunday night, he would say only that he expects to be in court Tuesday when the case is next called.
INTERVIEW: Thomas charged despite lengthy session with prosecutors
Jackson’s motion to have the indictment dismissed was denied by Warhit last month. Jackson had argued that the state Attorney General’s Office did not have the authority to investigate and charge Thomas for campaign violations and that state prosecutors had prevented the mayor from testifying before the grand jury.
Thomas case background
Thomas is charged with grand larceny for allegedly stealing $12,900 from Friends of Richard Thomas before and after his election in 2015.
He is also accused of filing false statements related to campaign expenses and to more than $75,000 he received from his inaugural committee and from Spiezio and other individuals that he failed to report on his city ethics forms.
Thomas’ initial criminal defense lawyers when he was first arrested in March were Carl Bernstein and Charles Knapp. Thomas named Knapp as Mount Vernon’s new inspector general earlier this month.
Before Jackson was publicly identified as Thomas’ lawyer, the mayor had pushed unsuccessfully to get his fellow members of the city’s Board of Estimate and Contract to retain Boies Schiller to represent him without disclosing the nature of the representation.
Pizzi would not say whether Spiezio is paying for Thomas’ defense. Asked in an email whether he was, Spiezio replied he was not.
Pizzi was elected mayor of Miami Lakes in 2008 and re-elected four years later. But in 2013 – when he was also the town attorney in Medley – he was arrested on corruption charges, accused of pocketing more than $6,000 from undercover FBI agents posing as Chicago businessmen looking for help getting federal grants for South Florida communities.
He was suspended as mayor by the governor. A year later, a jury found Pizzi not guilty of all charges. A judge in 2015 ordered his reinstatement as mayor.
Pizzi sought a third term in 2016 and lost.
While awaiting trial in February 2014 he registered as a lobbyist in Opa-locka for Universal Waste Services, Spiezio’s Florida garbage company. Florida incorporation records also show Pizzi is the registered agent of Spiezio’s company, which had its office in the same Miami Lakes suite as Pizzi’s law firm.
Pizzi had previously worked for a company that held the Opa-locka carting contract. Spiezio’s company took over the contract in 2015 when the other company went bankrupt. According to The Miami Herald, the owner of that company secretly recorded Pizzi later that year for the FBI in a failed attempt to implicate Pizzi in corruption schemes.
For six months in 2015, Pizzi was also the assistant city attorney for Opa-locka.
Opa-locka’s city commission awarded Spiezio’s firm a new contract late in 2016 even though it was not the low bidder. When the state overseer of the city’s finances frowned on the award, the city commission stripped the contract from Universal, prompting a $10 million lawsuit by the company, which is represented by Pizzi.
Spiezio of New Rochelle was a campaign adviser for Thomas in 2015. Thomas has used Spiezio’s New York lawyer Jeffrey Buss to represent him, the city and the Mount Vernon Industrial Development Agency on numerous matters since he took office in January 2016.