In the final weeks before Election Day last fall, the Miami-Dade Republican Party paid $150,000 to a political consultant with close ties to the party's then-chairman, U.S. Rep. David Rivera.
But party officials cannot explain exactly what they got for the money.
The party made the payments in October and November to the firm of consultant Esther Nuhfer without any written contract, and the party does not have any detailed invoices of the expenses — the party's largest expenses in at least six years, records show.
"I haven't seen detailed records like that," said Jose Alcaraz Jr., the party's treasurer.
Instead, the party has only a handful of brief invoices from Nuhfer's Coral Gables company, Communication Solutions, that the party's new chairman, state Rep. Erik Fresen of Miami, described as "simplistic."
"There's no contract, unlike what I'm going to do," said Fresen, who took over the party reins in December.
According to the party's campaign reports, at least $100,000 of the money paid to Nuhfer's firm was earmarked for "media'' consulting. The party's executive director, J.C. Hernandez, said that money was supposed to pay for air time on two Spanish-language radio stations in the weeks leading up to the election.
But the Miami-Dade GOP's air time on WAQI-710 AM, known as Radio Mambí, and its sister station, WQBA-1140 AM, cost just $34,500, records show. The Miami Herald surveyed five other Spanish language stations and found no other advertising purchased by the party.
Asked if he expected Communication Solutions to spend more than $34,500 on radio time, Hernandez said: "Absolutely, yeah."
Despite the discrepancy, Hernandez and Fresen said there is no reason to believe the money was spent inappropriately.
"We swept every race, so it's difficult to say the money wasn't spent properly," Fresen said.
Political parties must keep records of their expenses, but the law does not specify how detailed those records must be, said Eric Buermann, a former attorney for the Miami-Dade GOP and the Republican Party of Florida. Nevertheless, the party should keep detailed records for auditors or potential inquiries by the Florida Elections Commission, he said.
"It's not, in my mind, normal business practice," Buermann said of the party's record-keeping.
Nuhfer is a lobbyist and political fundraiser who is close with Rivera.
While working for the Miami-Dade GOP, her firm also was working on Rivera's congressional campaign, records show. Rivera was elected to Congress in November after serving eight years in the state Legislature.
Rivera is now the target of a criminal probe of his personal and campaign expenses, and investigators also are examining his relationship with Nuhfer, the Miami Herald has learned. Party officials said they have not been contacted by investigators.
Nuhfer did not respond to requests for an interview by phone and e-mail, and she did not answer written questions e-mailed to her last week.
In written responses to questions, Rivera's campaign said a written contract was not required with Nuhfer's firm or any other vendor, and that the party "followed long-standing standard practice by ensuring that all expenditures to Communication Solutions were properly documented with invoices."
Rivera's campaign said Rivera recused himself from day-to-day oversight and decision-making of the party — also known as the Miami-Dade Republican Executive Committee — once he won the GOP primary in August. He also withdrew his authority to sign checks from the party's bank accounts, the campaign said.
"Communication Solutions was chosen as a vendor by a vote of the REC Executive Board after then-Chairman Rivera had already recused himself from decision-making authority," the campaign said.
The party's board agreed to select vendors for a get-out-the-vote campaign at an Aug. 21 meeting, but no specific vendors were named, according to minutes of the meeting obtained by the Herald. Rivera later recused himself from board activities at a Sept. 4 meeting, the minutes show.
Nuhfer's firm was paid in five checks signed by three different party leaders. Rivera did not sign any of them, said Hernandez, the party's executive director.
Hernandez said the GOP had a "verbal contract'' with Nuhfer's company, and it was not uncommon for the party to make such arrangements without a written agreement.
But Buermann, the former GOP attorney, said written contracts are routine when purchasing political advertising, so the campaigns can ensure they get the time slots they desire.
"Media consultants usually do have written agreements. They are usually pretty specific," said Buermann, who also served on the Florida Elections Commission.
Hernandez said he has asked Nuhfer to provide better records of the radio advertising and other expenses, but she had not provided them by Friday — three months after the election.
"We're still waiting on that," he said.
In addition to the money for radio ads, Communication Solutions also received a $25,000 payment for a get-out-the-vote campaign, and another $25,000 from a federal campaign account for both media and a voter drive, campaign records show.
Hernandez said Nuhfer's firm helped provide transportation to voters during early voting and Election Day, and she recruited poll workers to hand out GOP literature at voting stations. But Nuhfer has not provided records of these expenses either.
Records going back to 2005 show that, before making the payments to Nuhfer's company last year, the party had not paid any firm more than $10,000 for consulting.
Nuhfer's company was hired as part of an aggressive GOP voter drive that also included direct-mail advertising and phone banks hired to call voters and encourage them to vote Republican. The effort paid off, drawing 61 percent of registered Republicans in Miami-Dade to the polls last fall.
The party's campaign was paid for from a "Victory Budget'' fueled by avid fundraising under Rivera. During Rivera's two-year tenure as chairman, the Miami-Dade GOP raised about $370,000.
"The finance and electoral goals set by then-Chairman Rivera were more ambitious than ever," Rivera's campaign said. "The GOTV (get-out-the-vote) efforts were the most successful in recent history."
One of the largest donors to the Miami-Dade Republican Party was Rivera himself. In July, he gave the county party $30,000 -- the most allowed under state law — from his abandoned state Senate campaign, records show. Rivera had given up the state Senate race in February 2010 to run for Congress.
Fresen, who took over as party chairman in December, acknowledged that the party's billing practices with Nuhfer's company may cause concern among party donors. He said he planned even before taking the chairman's seat to improve the party's record-keeping and accountability.
"If it tarnishes the image of the party, I'm going to have to mitigate that," Fresen said of the payments to Nuhfer's firm. "It kind of pre-dates me . . . my expectation for detail is going to be higher."
Times/Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report.