Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Another mystery candidate in South Florida? Mailers may tell the story

As rivals call on the FBI to examine a former mystery opponent of U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia, the Miami Herald has uncovered a new connection between them: Both used the same print shop for campaign mailers.

But the print shop, Image Plus Graphics, isn't the only tie between Garcia and Jose Rolando "Roly" Arrojo, whose 2010 campaign violated federal campaign-finance disclosure rules.

Arrojo went to school and did business with Garcia's top adviser, who was abruptly fired May 31 as the congressman's chief of staff amid a state investigation into alleged absentee ballot-request fraud.

Arrojo, Garcia, and Garcia's campaign have denied working in concert two years ago, but the mailers printed by the same vendor have led to new questions about the campaigns.

"I can assure you, we printed that piece and it has our permit number," Image Plus Graphic's president, Cliff Warren, told the Herald when shown Arrojo's mailer.

"But I think it was done on the q.t. (quiet)," Warren said.

Warren said he couldn't recall who paid for the Arrojo mailers or how many were printed two years ago, but he quickly identified Garcia campaign mailers printed by his shop over the years.

Arrojo refused comment.

Garcia said the decision to hire printers and produce mail pieces were made by his former top aide and campaign adviser, Jeffrey Garcia, who has no relation and isn't commenting amid the new state investigation.

Joe Garcia met Friday for about two hours with state prosecutors. He told them he knew nothing about the scheme in which people connected to his campaign might have fraudulently requested absentee ballots of other voters in the Aug. 14 Democratic primary.

In all, three campaign workers — including two of Garcia's congressional staffers — were implicated in the fraud, and investigators raided three places in connection with the case.

"I knew nothing of this, and when I found out I fixed it," Garcia said.

As for Arrojo and his connections to his 2010 campaign, Joe Garcia said it was a coincidence.

"I was told Arrojo was a tea party candidate, and there were lots of those in 2010," Garcia said, acknowledging that Jeffrey Garcia had informed him about his one-time ties to Arrojo during the campaign.

Arrojo's campaign bears a resemblance to yet another suspicious campaign by another candidate who faced Garcia two years later. That candidate, Justin Lamar Sternad, pled guilty in federal court to charges for breaking federal-campaign finance laws.

Last week, Sternad's lawyer asked the FBI to investigate Arrojo.

"What's fair is fair," attorney Enrique "Rick" Yabor said. "It looks like Arrojo might have done a lot of things my client was investigated for."

There are a few differences: Sternad's fraud amounted to $81,486. Arrojo, who was cash-strapped like Sternad, probably spent less than $22,400.

Sternad filed fraudulent campaign-finance documents. Arrojo didn't file those reports at all.

Sternad is suspected of being a plant to help then-U.S. Rep. David Rivera bash Garcia in 2012. Sternad, a Democrat, used the same mail and printing vendors as the Republican Rivera.

When the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald interviewed the mail house used by Rivera and Sternad, the owner told the Herald that Rivera and a friend were behind Sternad's campaign. Rivera denied the charge, but the FBI began investigating and Sternad was soon convicted.

Arrojo was suspected of being a proxy to help Garcia bash Rivera two years before. Arrojo, a tea party candidate, used the same mail and printing vendor as the Democrat Garcia.

A top-notch printing house, Image Plus has printed hundreds of thousands of mailers for hundreds of candidates for decades.

But Arrojo's mailer stands out for a major reason: Image Plus is a union-run shop that, while praised and highly valued in Democratic circles, isn't a typical venue for a tea party candidate who ran on a hard-right platform.

The walls at Image Plus in North Miami are festooned with colorful pro-President Barack Obama signs like "LGBT for Obama" or a placard in Hebrew printed for Obama's Organizing for America campaign.

"Joe Garcia is a Democrat who worked for Obama," Arrojo's American eagle-adorned campaign mailer said, "the last thing we need is someone who supports Obama's policies."

That was the only shot at Garcia the Arrojo mailer took. It devoted more space to Garcia's rival, Rivera, a Republican who went on to best them both to become a congressman two years ago. Garcia beat Rivera in a rematch last year.

Since 2010, Republicans have complained about Arrojo's campaign. He didn't show how he paid the $10,440 qualifying fee to make the ballot or how he paid for the mailers.

Depending on the number of mail pieces, it could have cost Arrojo about $12,000 for Image Plus to print and send out roughly 20,000 mailers — a relatively modest amount for a general-election campaign, campaign and mail consultants told the Herald.

It's unclear how Arrojo could have afforded to pay for it all with personal money.

Adding to Republican suspicions: Arrojo was registered as a Republican, filed initially to run as a Democrat, then ran as a tea party candidate and is now a registered Democrat

Arrojo, who went to high school with Jeffrey Garcia, ran a failed real estate company with him, has declared bankruptcy, has had IRS tax liens placed against him and his Coral Gables home, which has been in foreclosure.

Based on Arrojo's campaign activity, two Republicans filed separate Federal Elections Commission complaints. They accurately pointed out that Arrojo didn't file his campaign-finance reports and didn't therefore account for how he paid for the mailer.

"This is simply a baseless and incorrect complaint," Arrojo told the FEC in a letter. "As I have stated before, I did not raise and spend $5,000 and my understanding is that unless I did, I would not be required to file the fundraising reports."

Under federal campaign law, candidates have to file campaign reports if they raise or spend more than $5,000.

Arrojo clearly spent more than $5,000, the FEC's acting general counsel, Christopher Hughey, wrote in a memo that nevertheless termed the complaints against Arrojo "low-rated matters."

Hughey closed the case in June 2011, and Arrojo was just sent letters reminding him that he broke the law.

The FEC case file indicates that the agency never made much of an investigation into Arrojo's finances, or how he could afford the $10,440 qualifying fee or the mailers. If he paid the qualifying fee with his own money, the self-contribution might not have to be reported, but the expense should have been.

The qualifying fee aside, in order for Arrojo to have spent less than $5,000 on the mailers, he would have printed fewer than 10,000 of them — about half of a typical mailer.

But there was likely yet another expense: A campaign manager, mail vendor or some other type of middleman.

Image Plus's president, Warren, said he never met Arrojo and that the print shop, like others, works almost exclusively with campaign managers or mail vendors who represent multiple clients.

While Warren said he couldn't remember who came into his shop on Arrojo's behalf, he recalled the work was already designed and was submitted to Image Plus on a compact disc.

After checking his files, Warren said he couldn't readily find a distinct account for Arrojo. Warren, though, acknowledged he wouldn't disclose private information about the company's clients.

Warren, whose print shop is under no suspicion for any crimes, said he'd happily talk to the FBI if the agency begins investigating the case. The FBI refused comment.

Though Arrojo's FEC complaint has been closed, the FBI could still investigate whether he illegally took money or whether he lied to the FEC — a federal offense.

Meantime, Sternad is scheduled to be sentenced Monday June 24 in federal court.

The unrelated state investigation into Joe Garcia's campaign continues.

Garcia knows he faces a tough campaign ahead in 2014, especially now that he had to fire his top political adviser. The congressman points out that none of the fraudulently requested absentee ballots were ever fraudulently filled out or voted.

After meeting with state investigators for two hours and taking repeated calls from reporters, Garcia said he's willing to explain what he knows and what he doesn't know about his campaign in 2012 or in 2010, when Arrojo and he ran against Rivera.

"I didn't know Arrojo then, and I don't know him now," Garcia said. "In 2010, things were coming fast and furious, and I didn't focus much on him, anyway."

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