PALMETTO BAY — The latest shoe to drop in a long-brewing Florida political scandal came crashing down Wednesday when authorities raided the Palmetto Bay house of former Republican state senator Frank Artiles.
Artiles is believed to be tied to a state investigation involving a sham no-party candidate who likely swayed the outcome of a key 2020 Miami-Dade state Senate race.
After months of scant information and little public focus, questions over Artiles’ involvement in the race reached an all-time high as the public corruption task force for the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office executed a morning search warrant, seizing box loads of items.
The whereabouts of the former senator were unknown. Artiles did not respond to requests seeking comment, and Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle’s office said it could not “confirm or deny the existence of any possible investigation.”
No one answered the door after law enforcement left and reporters approached the house.
A copy of the search warrant, which officers executed before 9 a.m., was not immediately available on Wednesday afternoon. Generally, search warrants are not made public until they are filed in court along with a list of what was seized.
Artiles’ defense lawyer, Greg Chonillo, said late Wednesday that his client has been “fully cooperative” with prosecutors, and has provided documents and other evidence to investigators.
“As you can understand, the ongoing criminal investigation limits us in what we can say,” said Chonillo, who would not say if he expects Artiles to be charged or when.
“If this matter is going to be litigated in court, we shall defend him in court — and not in the media,” Chonillo said.
While details remain sealed, the Miami Herald found last December that Artiles got involved in Miami-Dade’s Senate District 37 race when he recruited Alex Rodriguez, an auto-parts dealer who lives in Boca Raton, to run in the race.
Rodriguez was on the ballot as a no-party candidate, shared the same surname as the incumbent Democrat, and his mysterious candidacy has been under investigation since November by Fernandez Rundle’s office.
Rodriguez had never been a political candidate and had been a registered Republican just days before he filed to enter the race. Two days after Miami-Dade state prosecutors opened an investigation into his candidacy, Rodriguez retained Miami attorney William Barzee, who did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.
Rodriguez’s candidacy is in question after he listed a Palmetto Bay house as his address on his sworn candidate oath, though he lived in a rented house in Boca Raton. Rodriguez also appeared to be struggling financially.
His landlord told the Herald his rent was often paid late, with cash or, in one instance, a bounced check. The money woes added a layer of curiosity as to how he could afford the $2,000 he loaned to himself to cover the cost of appearing on the ballot.
Rodriguez received no political contributions, reported $15,000 in credit card debt and had no money in the bank, campaign finance records show. He paid the $1,187.88 qualifying fee with a City National Bank check, but his financial disclosure forms show no bank account or liabilities tied to that bank.
When asked by the Herald last November about his involvement in the no-party candidate’s presence in the race, Artiles did not respond.
Juan Carlos Planas, an election attorney and former Republican state lawmaker who represented the incumbent senator during the Senate District 37 recount, suspects the case may come down to money.
“At the heart of this is the misrepresentation of funds and the possibility of Alex Rodriguez being paid to run,” he said.
Miami Republican Ileana Garcia won the race after a three-day recount by just 32 votes out of more than 215,000 cast. She beat Democratic incumbent Sen. José Javier Rodríguez, helping cement the GOP majority in the Florida Senate for years to come. Alex Rodriguez, the no-party candidate, received more than 6,000 votes.
Artiles has been a scandal-plagued politician for years. He resigned from the Senate in disgrace in 2017 amid two parallel scandals. The first was an alcohol-fueled rant in which he called two Black lawmakers a racist slur in a Tallahassee bar. The second involved the hiring of a former Hooters “calendar girl” and a Playboy model with no political experience as “consultants” using funds from his political committee.
Senate Republican leaders have distanced themselves from the allegations raised against Artiles since the Herald broke the story.
Erin Isaac, a spokeswoman for the political committee that ran Republican campaigns in the Senate, in December said she was not aware of Artiles’ involvement in the race, and she said that Senate President Wilton Simpson, who heads the political committee, was also unaware of any role Artiles may have played.
As news of the raid broke on Wednesday, Isaac reiterated that neither the committee nor Simpson were aware of Artiles’ involvement.
In an interview on Wednesday, Garcia said she did not know who Artiles was until the Herald reported his ties to her race.
“I never met Frank Artiles,” the Miami Republican said. “I didn’t know of him until this happened. And I hope he doesn’t get offended if he ever sees this because I just really didn’t.”
Garcia said Miami-Dade prosecutors have “never” reached out to her, either, and said news about Artiles “has been cumbersome in the aspect where you are on pins and needles and you don’t know why.” She added that she didn’t speak about it publicly before because she is not involved.
“I can’t attest, I can’t say and I can’t answer for someone I don’t know and for something that I haven’t done. I am not the focal point of this,” Garcia said, noting that she just wants to focus on the 2021 legislative session, which is currently underway.
Alex Rodriguez was one of three no-party candidates running in key Senate races who did no independent campaigning yet were featured in political mail advertisements, paid by dark money. The ads promoted the candidates and progressive ideals in an apparent attempt to reach Democratic voters and divert some votes from the Democratic candidates in those races.
The mailers did not feature photos of any of the candidates and, in one case, misled voters by using stock images of a Black woman when the no-party candidate was white. The identity of the mystery donor behind the $550,000 dark-money campaign remains unknown, and its name changed in campaign finance reports after the November election.
Artiles has not been linked to the dark money effort, only to one of the candidates who was promoted by the mailers.