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FBI agents arrest two Florida mayors in graft probe

MIAMI (Reuters) - FBI agents arrested two Florida mayors at their City Hall offices on Tuesday on corruption charges, alleging the two men separately accepted bribes in connection with purported government contracts awarded to their Miami-area towns.

Manuel Marono, the mayor of Sweetwater, and Michael Pizzi, the mayor of Miami Lakes, both appeared in Miami federal court hours later. Each faces a charge of conspiracy to commit extortion.

"This is a sad day for South Florida," said Wifredo Ferrer, the U.S. attorney for Florida's Southern District. "This betrayal of our public trust is intolerable."

Two lobbyists were also charged in the case and are expected to surrender to authorities on Wednesday, Ferrer said.

The arrests came after a two-year investigation prompted by a tip, authorities said. During an undercover operation, FBI agents posed as officials at a fictitious, Chicago-based not-for-profit company that claimed to help local governments obtain federal grants.

Both Marono and Pizzi allegedly agreed to arrange for municipal approvals to help the company win the grant money in exchange for bribes and kickbacks, according to a criminal complaint.

Marono, who was elected mayor of Sweetwater in 2003, allegedly accepted more than $40,000 in bribes. Pizzi, a lawyer and former federal probation officer serving his second term as Miami Lakes mayor, received $6,750, officials said.

Florida Governor Rick Scott signed an executive order on Tuesday suspending both men from their public offices.

Candidates for municipal office in both towns do not run under a party affiliation.

If convicted, both men could face up to 20 years in prison.

(Reporting by Kevin Gray; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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