Fueled with $43,000 in secret money, U.S. Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami, helped run a shadow campaign that might have broken federal laws in last week's Democratic primary against his political nemesis Joe Garcia, according to campaign sources and finance records.
As part of the effort, a political unknown named Justin Lamar Sternad campaigned against Garcia by running a sophisticated mail campaign that Rivera helped orchestrate and fund, campaign vendors said.
Among the revelations: The mailers were often paid for with envelopes stuffed with crisp $100 bills.
Rivera and Sternad have denied working together in his campaign, which ended Aug. 14. But Hugh Cochran, president of Campaign Data, told the Herald this week that Rivera contacted him in July and requested he create a list of voters who were ultimately targeted in the 11 mailers sent by Sternad's campaign.
"David hired me to run the data," said Cochran, who is a retired FBI agent.
Cochran said he spoke numerous times with Rivera, produced the lists of targeted voters and emailed it to Rapid Mail and Computer Services in Hialeah, which mailed the fliers. Cochran copied the list to the owner and Rivera in a July 29 email, which he provided to the Herald.
When contacted by the Herald for comment, the Rivera campaign responded via email Tuesday night: "Congressman Rivera has never met or spoken to Mr. Sternad and knows absolutely nothing about him or his campaign."
But Rivera's campaign acknowledged he might have received an email from Campaign Data intended for Sternad's use.
"Anything Campaign Data mistakenly sent to congressman Rivera was done so in error, which has occurred previously, and without congressman Rivera's knowledge or consent," Rivera's campaign said.
Sternad and his attorney declined comment.
John Borrero, president of Rapid Mail, declined comment on Monday and Tuesday.
But late last week he told the Herald that Rivera was directly involved in the Sternad campaign mailings — a fact backed up by numerous sources with knowledge of the operation.
Last week, Borrero told the Herald that the Sternad campaign had paid cash for six of the cash mailers, which cost between $4,000 and $6,000 each. He said he was surprised by the amount of cash, which he sometimes may see from private clients and not usually campaigns.
"I never saw so much cash," Borrero said last week.
Since last week, however, the Herald has learned that Sternad sent more mailers funded by more secretive cash. The campaign mailed at least 11 fliers totaling at least $43,000.
Experienced campaign workers and campaign-law experts say they've never heard of a campaign paying cash for mailers.
"I've never heard of anything like this," said Mark Herron, a veteran elections-law lawyer who has represented more than scores of politicians and candidates.
"Candidates don't just show up with cash and say print me some mailers," Herron said.
A candidate or conspirator who knowingly and willfully "falsifies, conceals, or covers up by any trick, scheme, or device a material fact" in a federal election can face up to five years in prison, according to federal law.
Federal investigators specifically consider "surreptitious means, such as cash, conduits, or false documentation, to conceal" a contribution or expenditure a crime, according to a guidebook published by the Federal Elections Commission.
Campaign finance laws limit contributions to $2,500 per individual in a primary. Candidates who loan themselves money have to report it as well. They also can't receive more than $100 in cash.
Sternad's wife is unemployed, they have small investments and they're supporting five kids, according to his campaign records.
Sternad, who earned $30,000 as a hotel worker last year, loaned himself nearly $11,000 for his campaign. All but $822 was spent on the state fee to qualify for office. The remainder was spent for signs, bank fees or his cell phone bill.
Sternad — the treasurer for his own campaign — never filed a report showing he loaned himself any additional money. So it's unclear where the nearly $43,000 for the mailers came from. He never reported any work by Rapid Mail or Campaign Data. Nor has he reported expenditures for his de facto campaign manager, Ana Alliegro.
A lawyer who said he was representing Sternad, Enrique "Rick" Yabor, asked the Herald for written questions. He then did not answer them. Yabor was also on the ballot Aug. 14 when he unsuccessfully ran for county judge.
Yabor's campaign consultant: Alliegro. He paid her and her company $5,300 in his failed campaign.
Alliegro was also involved in paying for Sternad's mailers in cash — as much as $7,000 — delivering envelopes containing crisp $100 bills, sources familiar with Sternad's campaign said.
"I have absolutely nothing to say to you," Alliegro told a Herald reporter before she hung up the phone.
Sternad's use of Alliegro — who describes herself on Twitter as a "Republican Political Guru and Conservative Bad Girl!" — was a sign he wasn't running as a typical Democrat. Still, his campaign was effective enough to earn him 11 percent of the vote.
Sternad's campaign used President Barack Obama's logo and likeness, especially in mailers to African-Americans. One mailer called for "Justice for Trayvon," the first name of the Miami Gardens teen killed in a Central Florida confrontation with a neighborhood watch commander. Sternad also campaigned as "Lamar Sternad," leading some to believe he was trying to trick unaware black voters into supporting him. Indeed, the mailers for African-Americans didn't bear his likeness.
Another mailer targeted Keys voters by depicting a coral scene and pledging to "Protect Our Conch Way of Life." The 26th congressional district runs from Kendall to Key West.
Sternad's campaign also specifically targeted women voters by bashing Garcia over his divorce. Those fliers led Garcia's campaign to complain about Sternad's alleged ties to Rivera.
Rivera's campaign responded by accusing Garcia of running a ringer against the congressman in the 2010 race.
All the voter targeting by ZIP code, race or sex was done at the behest of Rivera, said Cochran, the Campaign Data owner who then turned the information over to Borrero at Rapid Mail. "David calls me up and asks me to run data for him. I run the data, I email it to John and I copy David on the email," Cochran said, realizing only later that it made little sense for a Republican to inquire about Democratic voters during a Democratic primary.
Later, Cochran said he and Borrero discussed the Democratic data Rivera requested. That's when Borrero told him the data really wasn't for the Republican congressman.
"Oh," Cochran said Borrero told him. "That data's for Lamar."