- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 22, 2015

MIAMI (AP) - A South Florida mayor acquitted of federal corruption charges was suspended but never permanently removed from his post and should be restored to serve out his term, his attorney told a state appeals court Wednesday.

The 3rd District Court of Appeal heard arguments in the case of Michael Pizzi against the city of Miami Lakes. A circuit judge in March ruled that Pizzi should get his old job back with back pay and benefits, but the city appealed.

Pizzi was suspended from office by Gov. Rick Scott after his August 2013 arrest in an FBI corruption sting involving questionable city grants. Wayne Slaton subsequently won a special election to fill out Pizzi’s term as mayor through November 2016, but Pizzi sought to return after a jury found him not guilty last August.

Scott initially refused to lift the suspension, but relented after the Florida Supreme Court ruled in Pizzi’s favor. The governor did not, however, automatically restore Pizzi as mayor.

Pizzi’s attorney, Ben Kuehne, told a three-judge panel of the appeals court that the Florida Constitution and state law require any official cleared in a criminal case to be returned to office to fulfill an unexpired term. If the court were to side with Miami Lakes, Kuehne added, it could set a legal precedent that would create “havoc” in future such situations.

“Mr. Pizzi is the rightful mayor entitled to resume his duties as mayor,” Kuehne said. “A suspension is a temporary act. What the governor did not do was remove Mr. Pizzi from office.”

Gerald Cope Jr., representing Miami Lakes and current Mayor Slaton, said the city’s charter called for a new mayor to be elected because Pizzi was suspended with more than six months remaining on his term. An interim mayor could serve for six months or less but not longer, Cope said.

“The town wanted certainty about who was occupying the position,” said Cope, himself a former appeals court judge. “Mr. Slaton did not run for a temporary office.”

Chief Judge Frank Shepherd and Judge Ivan Fernandez appeared skeptical of the city’s position, with Fernandez questioning the fairness of the Miami Lakes charter for an official acquitted of criminal charges.

“If the prosecution takes longer than six months that person is out of office no matter what,” he said.

The judges did not immediately rule, but the effect of the lower court’s ruling in Pizzi’s favor was put on hold until April 30. Both sides expect a ruling before then, and the loser could still appeal to the Florida Supreme Court.

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Follow Curt Anderson on Twitter: https://twitter.com/Miamicurt

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