MIAMI — After dropping out of a state Senate race last year to run for Congress, David Rivera set aside tens of thousands of dollars from his dormant Senate campaign account to say "thank you" to supporters of a race he never intended to finish.
Rivera paid the money to a company called ACH Fundraising Strategies, a Miami business founded by the daughter of a longtime aide. He cut a $50,000 check to ACH on July 15, 2010, the day before the firm was incorporated as a business.
Those "thank you campaign" dollars to ACH are being scrutinized as part of a criminal investigation of the Republican representative's personal and campaign accounts by the Miami-Dade police and prosecutors, the Miami Herald has learned.
Rivera, who was elected to Congress in November after eight years in the Florida Legislature, declined to be interviewed for this article. In a statement issued through his campaign office, Rivera said all of his expenses were proper, though he neither provided details of what ACH did for the money, nor any records verifying the expenses.
"It has always been campaign policy not to disclose details related to campaign strategies and tactics, past, present or future," the statement said. "The campaign reports speak for themselves. All information provided was accurate and all expenses properly reported."
State law allows candidates to spend excess campaign funds on "thank you" advertising, and lawmakers commonly do so by paying for mailers or other ads targeting voters in their districts.
From 2004 to 2010, Rivera spent almost $243,000 in campaign donations on "thank you" expenses, far more than any other state candidate, and accounting for almost one-quarter of all the thank-you money spent in Florida during that period, a Miami Herald analysis of state campaign data found.
More than $122,000 of Rivera's thank-you expenses went to consulting firms, including two payments to ACH totaling $75,000, records show.
The $75,000 paid to ACH last year came from Rivera's state Senate campaign, one he abandoned when he decided to run for Congress on Feb. 25, 2010. Rivera's Senate account held about $379,000 in unspent donations when he launched his congressional run. Campaign laws bar transferring that money to the federal race.
Rivera, who served as the treasurer of his Senate campaign, made his first $50,000 payment to ACH about five months later, on July 15, one day before ACH was incorporated, records show. The company received another $25,000 on Aug. 30.
ACH was founded by Alyn Cruz Higgins, 31, a Miami political fundraiser and consultant. Her mother, Alina Garcia, is an aide on Rivera's congressional staff, after working for him for years in the state Legislature.
Higgins' attorney, Robert Fernandez, said her company provided "consulting services" for Rivera's thank-you campaign. In a statement, he said Higgins "had been highly recommended by various people to David Rivera's state Senate campaign."
Fernandez also said Higgins filed to dissolve ACH on Dec. 23.
Higgins listed her mother's home as the address of ACH in state records. But Rivera's campaign reports show a different address, the home of Higgins' sister, Alany Cruz.
Cruz, a schoolteacher, said she was unaware of the payments and she could not explain why the campaign records list her home as the firm's address.
Cruz donated $500 to Rivera's Senate campaign in 2009, but he returned the donation, along with dozens of others, after launching his congressional bid.
Higgins worked in the office of Miami political consultant Steve Marin until August. Her company also received $12,000 in consulting fees this fall working on the campaign of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.
Higgins also assisted Rivera's 2006 state House campaign, receiving $3,500 as reimbursement for postage, records show.
Rivera declined to provide the Herald with any contract with ACH, and his campaign said its invoices were "inaccessible or in storage." Fernandez also declined to provide invoices, saying they were 'confidential.
"Any negative inference in your article about the services provided by ACH Strategies would be based purely on misinformation and/or speculation considering that ACH Strategies has not released its business records," Fernandez said.
In 2006, Rivera spent $15,000 on a "thank you" campaign through a company called Millennium Marketing, co-owned by Rivera's 70-year-old mother and his godmother. He also paid Millennium $15,000 for "campaign consulting" on Sept. 27, 2006, two days after Millennium was incorporated, records show.
In October, a Rivera spokeswoman said Millennium "was paid to organize and coordinate the thank-you campaign." Rivera provided copies of mailers he said Millennium produced.
Rivera's ties with Millennium are at the heart of the criminal investigation. Millennium received more than $500,000 in secret payments from the Flagler Dog Track as part of an agreement with Rivera to manage a political campaign on behalf of parimutuels seeking voter approval for slot machines in Miami-Dade County.
Rivera long maintained that he got no income from his work for the track. But this month, he said he received $132,000 from Millennium, payments not previously disclosed in financial disclosure forms.
He said the payments were loans from his mother's company, which he repaid after he won election to Congress on Nov. 2. Rivera has said he did not believe he was obliged to report the loans under state and federal disclosure rules.