A former congressional candidate at the center of an FBI probe tied to Rep. David Rivera has filed blank federal campaign-finance reports and a letter saying he would remain silent to avoid incriminating himself.
"On counsel's advice, I invoke my rights under the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States not to answer or submit the information requested on FEC Form 3, on the grounds that I may incriminate myself," Justin Lamar Sternad wrote Oct. 19 in a just-posted letter to the Federal Elections Commission.
"Please refer all additional inquires to my attorney, Rick L. Yabor."
Yabor declined comment, citing the pending FEC investigation.
Questions from the FEC were bound to arise after Sternad filed 17 blank pages as his campaign close-out report for October.
Sternad lost the Aug. 14 Democratic primary to Joe Garcia, a rival of Rivera. Sternad savaged Garcia with mailers and robocalls that echoed Rivera attack lines. Sternad, a political newcomer and night-desk hotel worker, didn't disclose where he got the money for the campaign efforts.
The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald first raised questions in August about how Sternad financed his longshot bid for the Kendall-to-Key West congressional seat held by Rivera. The FBI then opened an investigation. Sternad's letter to the FEC is the first public document confirming a federal investigation.
Federal law requires that congressional candidates disclose their contributions and expenditures. It generally prohibits candidates from accepting more than $2,500 per election from an individual. It's also a federal crime to conspire to knowingly file false federal paperwork.
Sternad later admitted that he used a Rivera friend, Ana Alliegro, as a campaign consultant, who fled the same day she was scheduled to give a truthful statement from FBI agents and a federal prosecutor. In recent weeks, Sternad has been flummoxed over how to file his final campaign report without further incriminating himself. He and Yabor consulted with federal prosecutors and an FEC expert and they decided the best course of action was a blank report.
Two campaign vendors, who have worked extensively for Rivera, told The Herald and later the FBI that Rivera was behind Sternad's campaign and helped use them to target and mail voters in the district.
Rivera and Sternad denied the charges. Rivera has claimed he has never been told he was under any federal investigation by a federal authority.
Last year, when state prosecutors were examining his personal and campaign finances, Rivera denied he was under investigation and said he didn't have an attorney representing him. But records showed that Rivera was under investigation and had hired a criminal-defense attorney.
Rivera was charged last week by the state ethics commission for violating 11 ethics rules. Some of the charges stem from a secret $500,000 consulting contract Rivera arranged with a dog track, which is now known as Magic City Casino.
State prosecutors mulled slapping Rivera with 52 charges, but said they couldn't because the laws were fuzzy or the statute of limitations had expired for some of the counts.
The IRS and FBI, meanwhile, are examining the dog-track case at the same time they're investigating the Sternad campaign.
Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com.