MIAMI — Before launching his bid for Congress last year, David Rivera embarked on a record-breaking campaign for state Senate, amassing more than $1 million in donations some eight months before Election Day.
Rivera paid $250,000 of that money to his fundraiser and longtime ally, Esther Nuhfer — including $150,000 in "bonus" money, records show — all for a political campaign that Rivera never finished.
Rivera dropped that state Senate campaign early to run for Congress. With Nuhfer's help, Rivera went on to easily win the congressional race, defeating Republican opponents in the primary and Democrat Joe Garcia in November.
But Rivera's nascent Washington career is in jeopardy, as criminal investigators in Miami and Tallahassee comb through his personal finances and campaign accounts — including the Senate account that fattened Nuhfer's paycheck. Investigators are focusing on Rivera's tight relationship with Nuhfer.
Rivera has denied any wrongdoing. Nuhfer did not return messages seeking comment.
Since 2006, Nuhfer's consulting firm has received at least $817,000 in fees from Rivera's political campaigns, or from political committees tied to the Republican congressman and former state lawmaker, state and federal campaign records show.
How some of this money was spent remains unclear. Nuhfer's firm received $150,000 from the Miami-Dade Republican Party last fall for radio advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts, but the party does not have a contract or detailed records verifying the expenses. Rivera was the party chairman at the time of the payments, though he did not sign the checks.
When asked about Nuhfer's work for him, Rivera would only communicate with the Miami Herald through written questions sent to an e-mail account in the name of his campaign. Rivera described Nuhfer only as his "fundraising consultant." His last year in the Legislature, Rivera described Nuhfer differently to a Miami Herald reporter.
"She's a close friend," Rivera said at the time.
Nuhfer was more than that. She also was a lobbyist in Tallahassee, where her connections to Rivera often sparked whispers and criticism from fellow lobbyists, political consultants and lawmakers in the gossipy state Capitol, where Rivera held the powerful post of budget chief in the state House of Representatives in 2009 and 2010.
During the legislative session, Nuhfer was a constant presence in Rivera's office: She often could be found sitting at or near his desk, using the telephone or typing on her laptop next to Rivera's legislative aide, Alina Garcia, who was Nuhfer's roommate in Tallahassee.
Rivera and Nuhfer also traveled together outside the state, according to sources close to the criminal investigation. Through his campaign, Rivera said any trips with Nuhfer were for "fundraising activities and events." In December, Rivera accompanied Nuhfer to a black-tie gala for Miami Dade College.
Nuhfer, 36, once worked for Miami-Dade County's Water and Sewer Department before starting her consulting firm, Communication Solutions, in 2004. Two years later, Nuhfer's firm was first hired by Rivera to work on his 2006 re-election campaign for the state House.
That same year, Rivera also began working for the owners of the Flagler Dog Track on a campaign to win voter approval for slot machines at parimutuel facilities in Miami-Dade County. The parimutuel later paid $510,000 to Millennium Marketing, a company owned by Rivera's 70-year-old mother and godmother, under an agreement with the track that remained secret until late last year.
Rivera's deal with the dog track — now called Magic City Casino — is one of the transactions now under investigation by the Miami-Dade Police Department, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office. Rivera has denied any wrongdoing, though he has acknowledged receiving $132,000 in undisclosed loans from Millennium — money Rivera says he repaid before taking his congressional seat.
Under the contract with Flagler, Rivera assumed the role of "Top Leader of Chain of Command of All Campaign Consultants and Campaign Activities." Among the consultants hired was Nuhfer, who worked closely with Rivera, said consultant Brian May, who also worked on the campaign.
Nuhfer's firm was among the highest-paid on the slots campaign, earning more than $110,000 in fees from a political committee financed by the gaming industry, records show.
In 2007, Nuhfer began working as a lobbyist in Tallahassee, where Rivera's stature was growing thanks to his friend, House Speaker Marco Rubio, who made Rivera the chairman of the rules committee, a post that gave Rivera life-or-death say over the flow of legislation heading to the House floor.
Nuhfer's ties to Rivera made her a useful ally in the state Capitol.
Last year, the city of Miami Lakes hired Nuhfer in an effort to get more money for the city in the state budget, Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi said. Nuhfer then set up a meeting of city officials with Rivera.
The town's lobbying contract with Nuhfer was arranged by Gonzalo Dorta, a lawyer who does work for the city. Dorta has been a campaign donor to Rivera and Rivera's political action committee, records show. Dorta could not be reached for comment.
Dorta was also tied to a group of lawyers called Private Defenders Clinic, whose president and wife contributed the maximum of $4,800 to Rivera's congressional campaign March 30, in the middle of the 2010 legislative session. The following day, Dorta ponied up $4,800, records show.
Private Defenders Clinic wanted to privatize some services provided by the Miami-Dade Public Defenders Office, said Public Defender Carlos Martinez, who spent the final weeks of the 2010 legislative session trying to make sure that last-minute legislation didn't crop up to privatize his office. During that time, Martinez was told to beware of Nuhfer.
"I only heard about her, but I never even knew what she looked like," Martinez said.
Nuhfer wasn't registered to lobby for the clinic. Instead, she was registered to lobby for Pinsky Consulting Group. It was controlled by lobbyist Richard Pinsky, who was registered to lobby for the Private Defenders Clinic. Pinsky said he hired Nuhfer for her ties not just to Rivera, but to the entire Miami-Dade delegation.
"She had good intel, really knew what was going on," Pinsky said. "When it comes to the Miami-Dade delegation, you need to have as much information as possible. It's a different world."
Usually, lobbyists don't register to lobby by listing other lobbyists as clients. But the practice isn't unheard of. In 2009, for instance, both Pinsky and Nuhfer registered along with a few others to lobby for a consulting company controlled by yet another lobbyist, Dave Ericks, who has represented dozens of local South Florida governments, pawn shops, prison contractors, AT&T and Florida Power & Light. When asked about the curious arrangement last year, Ericks and Pinsky both said they hired other lobbyists to help track down members, drop off amendments or pass messages.
"It wasn't like Esther was lobbying for all of my issues all of the time," Pinsky said. "She registered as lobbying for my consulting firm out of an abundance of caution. Everything was disclosed."
Nuhfer's lobbying disclosures in 2008 were even more unorthodox: She registered to lobby only the Florida House — where Rivera was — and not the state Senate. Normally, lobbyists don't limit themselves to one chamber of the Legislature.
While working as a lobbyist, Nuhfer also doubled as a consultant for two political action committees tied to Rivera. Her firm received more than $44,000 in fees from the two committees. Through his campaign, Rivera said Nuhfer performed a variety of consulting activities for the committees, including "policy advocacy, strategic advice, outreach efforts, event coordination."
Rivera in 2008 also used Nuhfer for another campaign: the little-known post of Republican committeeman for Miami-Dade County. Rivera's opponents at the time, Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla and Rep. Julio Robaina, both marveled at the money Rivera was spending: an estimated $250,000 for mailers, radio ads and even pre-recorded telephone calls featuring Rubio. Rivera refused to disclose his donors, noting he didn't have to due to a quirk in state law about party elections. Rivera won the seat, which enabled him to run for chairman of the county party, which later steered business to Nuhfer.
In 2009, facing term limits on his state House seat, Rivera announced that he would run for the state Senate the following year — and he once again hired Nuhfer to work on the campaign.
In campaign reports, Nuhfer is described as a fundraising consultant. But in a written response to questions from the Herald, Rivera listed some 41 different functions Nuhfer performed for the Senate campaign, including: "general consulting," "political consulting," "collateral material development," "coalitions building," "consultant liaison," and "travel coordination, school site outreach program, website development, GOP auxiliary organizations liaison, precinct analysis, et cetera."
When it came to fundraising, Rivera's Senate campaign was an unqualified success, hauling in more than $1 million before he pivoted to his congressional bid. Though he stopped raising money for the Senate race eight months before the election, Rivera still collected more cash than any other Senate candidate in Florida last year, state elections records show.
But Rivera also burned through the Senate campaign money at an unprecedented pace, spending $700,000 by February 2010 — long before most legislative campaigns even get started. Nuhfer's firm accounted for the largest expenses: $250,000 in fees and bonuses paid to Communication Solutions over a five-month period, records show.
Rivera said the bonuses were a "contractually-obligated expenditure for the campaign having successfully reached the fundraising bonus threshold." But Rivera refused to provide the Herald with a copy of the contract with Nuhfer's firm.
Rivera's spending from his Senate account has already drawn scrutiny from police and prosecutors, the Herald has learned.
Last summer, Rivera paid $75,000 from that account to a now-defunct consulting company owned by the daughter of one of Rivera's top aides. According to campaign reports, the money was earmarked for a "thank you" advertising campaign.
The Herald requested records showing how this "thank you" money was spent, but neither Rivera nor the consulting firm provided the newspaper with any documents.
When Rivera decided to run for Congress instead of the state Senate, he once again turned to Nuhfer for help. It was Nuhfer who faxed the notice of Rivera's candidacy to the state Division of Elections on Feb. 25 and sent out the press release.
Nuhfer received another $192,000 in fees for organizing radio and television advertising for Rivera's congressional campaign, records show. Nuhfer also worked on Rubio's U.S. Senate campaign last year, records show.
Now that Rivera is in Washington, Nuhfer has been spotted in his office there as well. And she's no longer registered as a lobbyist in Tallahassee.