David Rivera, the former Miami congressman under investigation in a complicated campaign-financing scheme, said Thursday night that he intends to run again for the U.S. House of Representatives.
Rivera made his announcement on Spanish-language Mega TV and wouldn't talk about the federal investigation, claiming that it was the result of lies propagated by the Miami Herald/El Nuevo Herald, whose investigative work has resulted in one federal conviction and the recent federal indictment of the Republican's close friend.
"I will not answer to the lies of the Miami Herald," Rivera said on the political talk show Ahora con Oscar Haza.
"I will not deviate from the issues and (will) defeat Joe Garcia. Rivera said he's running due to a "leadership crisis," calling Garcia "incompetent."
Garcia declined comment about Rivera, who had beaten Garcia in 2010. Rivera then lost to the Democrat by about 10 percentage points in a 2012 rematch in the newly drawn District 26 boundaries that stretch from the Miami area to Key West.
Rivera's announcement stunned Florida's tough-to-surprise political world.
One of his fellow Republicans running against Garcia, Miami-Dade School Board Member Carlos Curbelo, issued a statement that blasted Rivera as well as Garcia, whose former campaign manager was recently jailed in an unrelated absentee ballot-request fraud scheme exposed by the Herald.
"Now more than ever our campaign is about putting an end to the scandals and the corruption that have plagued our community for far too long," Curbelo said in a statement.
"The unethical conduct of public officials in both parties — including incumbent Joe Garcia — has landed people in jail and embarrassed the residents of Miami-Dade and Monroe Counties," Curbelo said. "We will run a clean campaign focused on reestablishing the public trust and putting an end to this sad chapter in our community's history."
Curbelo is the Republican establishment favorite in the race and earned the endorsement of former Gov. Jeb Bush.
Rivera is a friend of Sen. Marco Rubio, though the two haven't been as close as in past years amid Rivera's mounting political and legal troubles.
The two still jointly own a Tallahassee rental home, but associates say Rubio would like to sell it and that he doesn't think it's a good idea for Rivera to run for Congress against Curbelo.
Rivera, who said he'd officially file for the office today, didn't address Curbelo. The two had a tense race against each other for Miami-Dade Republican chairman in 2008 when Rivera, then a state representative, won the post by just a single vote.
Rivera went on to win his congressional seat in 2010 when he defeated Garcia and a phony tea party candidate who had links to Garcia's former campaign manager, Jeffrey Garcia.
The FBI began investigating that incident last year after the Miami Herald uncovered new evidence in the case.
By then, the FBI and U.S. Attorneys Office were farther along in the investigation of Rivera and his friend, Ana Alliegro, who helped manage the campaign of a little-known Democratic candidate named Justin Lamar Sternad.
Sternad admitted to the FBI and U.S. Attorney's Office that his Democratic primary campaign was funded with about $82,000 in illegal campaign contributions, which were used, in part, to bash Garcia to the benefit of Rivera.
Sternad identified Alliegro as a source of the money. A March indictment against her says she was aided by at least one unnamed "co-conspirator."
Alliegro is in a federal lockup awaiting trial on charges of breaking campaign-finance laws and lying about it.
Sternad, who is cooperating against her, has yet to be sentenced after pleading guilty last year to charges of breaking federal campaign-finance laws and lying about it.
Alliegro was arrested in March in Nicaragua, to which she twice fled to avoid investigators and prosecutors, Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas J. Mulvihill argued last month in court as part of a successful effort to keep her locked up.
Mulvihill said that, after she surrendered her passport last fall, Alliegro and "another individual" left Miami by flying to Texas, boarding a Greyhound bus to Mexico — where a U.S. passport isn't needed for entry — and then flying to her hideout in Nicaragua.
While in Nicaragua, Alliegro was frequently visited by Rivera, neighbors told the Miami Herald.
When the Sternad case broke in the Herald/El Nuevo Herald, Mulvihill had already been leading an unrelated federal tax investigation into Rivera stemming from a secretive $500,000 payment from a dog track.
Rivera also narrowly escaped a state indictment on 52 counts of theft, money laundering and racketeering revolving around his use of campaign money. State prosecutors said the alleged crimes were too old or too tough to prosecute.
Rivera has long denied wrongdoing in those cases and on Thursday night he downplayed close ties to Alliegro. "I know her family; everyone knows her family," he said.
He also dismissed the Sternad case.
"Nobody cares about a fake campaign from two years ago."
Rivera said "no" when asked if federal investigators have come knocking on his door.
"It's ridiculous," he said of the allegations.