Sunday, May 27, 2018
Politics

U.S. Rep. David Rivera investigation left behind $50,000 mystery

Buried amid the records compiled in the recently concluded criminal probe of Republican Congressman David Rivera is a $50,000 mystery.

Why did an obscure Republican organization pay $25,000 in 2006 to a defunct company founded by Rivera's mother? Why did a political consultant with close ties to Rivera receive another $25,000 on the very same day? And where did the money come from in the first place?

Further adding to the mystery: The Republican Party of Florida reportedly made a $50,000 payment to a Central Florida nonprofit group — money the group never received — on the same day the payments went to Rivera's mother and consultant. Are the payments connected?

These questions are among many left unanswered after an 18-month investigation of Rivera's finances by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office, a probe prosecutors concluded last month without filing charges against the Miami lawmaker.

Investigators suspected Rivera of misusing campaign funds and concealing money he received while working as a consultant for a dog track seeking voter approval for slot machines in Miami-Dade County. Rivera, who was elected to Congress in 2010 after eight years in the Florida House of Representatives, has denied any wrongdoing, and lambasted the investigation as flawed. He remains under investigation by the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service.

In a statement issued through his campaign, Rivera said the $50,000 was spent on a "voter outreach program" coordinated by the Miami chapter of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, a little-known Hispanic group. Rivera also provided records of absentee-ballot materials mailed to voters under the Hispanic Assembly's name.

However, neither GOP officials nor Hispanic Assembly members recall such a campaign. And Rivera's mother told prosecutors in a sworn statement that her company — described by prosecutors as "non-existent" — never did any work that she could remember.

Loans and financing

As part of the state probe, FDLE agents gathered bank records of Rivera and of those close to him — including his mother, 71-year-old Daisy Magarino, and Esther Nuhfer, a political consultant and fundraiser whose firm received more than $800,000 from campaigns and committees tied to Rivera, records show.

FDLE investigators found that Rivera's finances were often entangled with those of Magarino, her business partner — who is Rivera's godmother — and their companies. For example, Rivera arranged for one of his mother's companies to receive more than $500,000 from the former Flagler Dog Track, now called the Magic City Casino. Rivera later received $132,000 in loans from his mother's company — loans Rivera never listed in state financial disclosure forms.

Among the bank accounts scrutinized by the FDLE was one for Millennium Marketing Strategies, a company founded by Magarino in 2000.

On Aug. 31, 2006, the company received a $25,000 check from the Miami chapter of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly of Florida. A note on the check said it was for "grassroots organization."

Millennium was a would-be marketing company dormant since 2001, state records show. When questioned by prosecutors last August, Magarino conceded that Millennium Marketing Strategies was "almost a non-existent company," and she said she could not remember any work the company did.

"It didn't get off the ground, really," Magarino told prosecutors.

In his statement, Rivera said Millennium was "engaged" by the Hispanic Assembly to help run the voter outreach campaign, which he said included voter registration drives, operating phone banks and canvassing precincts.

"These labor-intensive elements are often conducted on a hourly or daily basis and require immediate remuneration for the campaign workers," he said — a job that would have been delegated to a "vendor" such as Millennium. "Partial invoice records for the program as a whole suggest a budget which exceeds the payments made to Communication Solutions and Millennium Marketing."

Rivera declined to answer questions about how his mother's company was hired for the job.

Humberto Amaro, the former chairman of the Miami chapter of the Hispanic Assembly, said he did not recall Millennium performing any work for the organization. He said he did not know that the Assembly ever had enough money to cover the $25,000 check.

Amaro, 75, reviewed the check for the Miami Herald and said that he had signed it. However, Amaro said he did not fill out the check, and he could not identify a second signature on the check.

"We've never had that kind of money," said Tony de la Cruz, a former president of the Assembly's Florida chapter and a member of the Miami chapter. He said he was unaware of the payments to Rivera's mother or Nuhfer's company.

Amaro, who acknowledged his memory has faded, described Rivera as an "intimate friend," and said Rivera was active with the Assembly. But Amaro said he could not explain the reason for the payment to Rivera's mother's company.

Rivera provided the Herald with copies of absentee ballot request forms mailed out to voters under the Hispanic Assembly's name in 2006. Rivera also provided postal records, dated three weeks before the $25,000 payment, listing himself as the contact person for the mailer.

Rivera listed "Millennium Marketing" as a source of his income in financial disclosure forms filed with the state from 2002 to 2004, records show. (Magarino and her business partner, Ileana Medina, founded another company called Millennium Marketing Inc. in September 2006 at Rivera's request as part of the dog-track deal, records show.)

The payment to Millennium from the Hispanic Assembly was one of only three deposits in the Millennium Marketing Strategies account over a seven-year period, FDLE investigators found. (The defunct company also received $4,550 from the Miami-Dade Republican Party in 2004, and a $100 cash deposit.) Rivera's mother later withdrew more than $29,000 from the account, the FDLE found.

Magarino could not be reached for comment for this article.

Investigators and prosecutors did not specifically pursue the Hispanic Assembly payments as part of the Rivera probe. Prosecutors never asked Magarino about the Hispanic Assembly money or how it was spent.

On the same day as the payment to Millennium, the Assembly also paid $25,000 to Nuhfer's firm, Communication Solutions. The checks were intended for "get out the vote" efforts, records show.

Amaro said he did not recall the payment to Nuhfer, nor did he recall two earlier checks to Nuhfer's company from the Assembly for $10,000. Nuhfer was not asked about the Hispanic Assembly in her interview with prosecutors, records show.

Nuhfer could not be reached for comment.

'Budget dust'

The payments from the Assembly appear to coincide with a $50,000 donation purportedly paid to a different organization by the state Republican Party. Campaign finance records show no payments from the GOP to the Hispanic Assembly's Miami chapter.

However, the party did report a $50,000 payment to the Republican National Hispanic Assembly of Central Florida, headquartered in Winter Springs. The payment was purportedly made on Aug. 31, 2006 — the same date as the payments from the Miami chapter to Rivera's mother and Nuhfer.

Nancy Acevedo, president of the Hispanic Assembly's Central Florida chapter (now called the Republican Hispanic Alliance of Central Florida), said her organization did not receive a cent from the state GOP.

"We never got any money from them," Acevedo said. The Republican Party "never supported us financially."

Because the transaction took place so long ago, Republican Party officials said they could not determine last week whether the $50,000 went to the Miami chapter or the Winter Springs organization. The party could find only a record of a wire transfer that did not specify which organization received the money, said Kristen McDonald, a party spokeswoman.

"The transaction was reported in compliance with the law, based on the information provided at that time," McDonald said.

The payment to the Hispanic Assembly was requested by Bill Helmich, who managed the party's campaigns for the Florida House at the time, party officials said.

Helmich said he did not recall the $50,000 payment, which he called "budget dust" amid a $10 million spending blitz he managed during a three-month stretch leading up to the fall 2006 elections. He said he did not talk to state representatives about how to spend the money.

Helmich also has ties to Rivera, records show: In 2008 and 2009, Helmich worked as a consultant on Rivera's political campaigns, earning almost $35,000.

Miami Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report.

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