MIAMI — The details surrounding a political whodunit involving a former Miami GOP state senator, a mysterious no-party candidate and an alleged scheme to sway the outcome of a key Florida Senate race came pouring out Thursday in a 25-page affidavit.
The alleged campaign chicanery involved early morning Facebook messages, incriminating text messages and, at the heart of it all, tens of thousands of dollars in documented payments in exchange for a ringer candidate to get his name on the ballot.
Frank Artiles, a Republican political operative, is facing felony charges on suspicion of offering Alexis “Alex” Rodriguez $50,000 to run as an independent in Miami-Dade’s Senate District 37 race. The goal, investigators say, was to “confuse voters and influence the outcome” of the race to represent Senate District 37.
The race pitted former TV personality Ileana Garcia, a Republican, against incumbent Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Democrat. Alex Rodriguez, an auto-parts dealer who shares the same surname as the incumbent, ran as an independent. Investigators said Artiles recruited him to “siphon votes from the incumbent,” who lost by a mere 32 votes after a manual recount. Alex Rodriguez, who did no campaigning, received more than 6,000 votes.
“We are alleging that November’s Florida Senate District 37 election involved crimes,” Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said at a press conference Thursday.
The arrest warrant states that the actual amount paid by Artiles to Alex Rodriguez before and after the election totaled $44,708.03. Rundle said investigators “don’t know the origin” of the money. But court records say Artiles would repeatedly grab stacks of cash — ranging from $3,000 to $5,000 — from his home safe and give them to Rodriguez.
Investigators also continue to look into who paid for deceptive political mail advertisements that promoted Rodriguez’s candidacy and no-party candidates in two other key Florida Senate races.
Artiles is facing third-degree felony campaign finance-related charges connected to illegal campaign contributions and false swearing in connection with voting or elections, which carry sentences of up to five years if convicted. Alex Rodriguez is facing the same charges.
“Frank Artiles and his co-conspirators knew they couldn’t beat Jose Javier Rodriguez in a fair election so they rigged it,” said William Barzee, an attorney representing the no-party candidate.“Artiles cynically targeted and used a vulnerable ‘friend’ with a great name to run in the race in order to confuse voters and steal the election.”
Rodriguez, the Democratic incumbent, told the Herald on Thursday that the arrest represented, above all, the harm to voters who went into the voting booth and saw a name of a candidate who never intended to serve.
“This is the harm that was done to voters,” said Rodriguez, the Democratic incumbent. “These tactics are not new, but the brazenness is unprecedented.”
Reaction in Tallahassee
Florida Senate Republicans have distanced themselves from Artiles’ actions in recent days, and say they knew nothing about Artiles’ involvement in the race.
“We had no involvement, nor were we aware of outside involvement in the race,” said Erin Isaac, a spokeswoman for the political committee that runs Republican campaigns in the Senate, and Senate President Wilton Simpson, who heads the political committee.
Garcia, who passed her first bill in the Florida Senate on Thursday, did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Rundle said Thursday there is no evidence Garcia knew of Artiles’ alleged scheme.
Senate Democratic leader Gary Farmer urged leadership in the chamber to “begin a closer examination of these events.”
“And, if the charges are upheld and if these allegations are borne out, [the Senate should] take all steps necessary to ensure that no member is allowed to sit in the Senate if they were brought here through illegal methods,” said Farmer, a lawyer from Lighthouse Point.
Simpson told reporters he is waiting to see “all the facts” before he comments on the case.
In recent weeks, GOP legislative leaders and Gov. Ron DeSantis have made “election integrity” a top legislative focus. But Simpson sidestepped questions on whether Florida lawmakers, who are in the midst of the 2021 legislative session, should address the election issue of ghost candidates influencing Florida elections.
“This happens to be the topic of the day, so it will get accelerated based on the will of the Senate,” Simpson said.
How it happened, according to investigators
The scheme to siphon away votes, according to investigators, wasn’t some highly secretive plot.
Investigators say it all started when Artiles reached out to Alex Rodriguez on Facebook at 4 a.m. last May.
“Call me after 12 noon …. I have a question for you?” Artiles wrote to Rodriguez, someone he has known for two decades, though they had not spoken in over a year.
Artiles wanted to ask whether he would help him with a “political matter.” At the time, Rodriguez told prosecutors he was going through financial difficulties, and Artiles was offering him $50,000 to run as an independent in Senate District 37.
Artiles told him he had access to “money in an account,” though it is unclear where the money would come from. Artiles said he would pay him half during the election and the rest after the election, Rundle said. Rodriguez agreed, according to the arrest affidavit. He believed Artiles — who he thought to be “very well connected” — could help him financially, investigators said.
“Artiles proposed Rodriguez run for a seat in District 37 of the Florida Senate as an independent [no party affiliation] candidate,” according to the arrest warrant, which said the matter was discussed face to face at Artiles’ Palmetto Bay home office. “Artiles explained that Rodriguez would not be involved in any part of the campaign, nor would he have to participate in any decision making.”
That was, in fact, the case. Rodriguez did zero independent campaigning outside of political mail advertisements that were paid for by a mystery donor whose address leads to a UPS store in Atlanta.
Artiles told Rodriguez that his only responsibility was to carry his phone and check it periodically for any upcoming messages from the Elections Department, according to investigators,
Meanwhile, the arrest warrant notes that Artiles’ involvement in launching the no-party candidate’s bid was extensive.
He instructed Rodriguez to change his party affiliation from Republican to independent at the Department of Elections in Doral days before filing his paperwork to run for office. Artiles provided all the candidate forms Rodriguez needed to file to appear on the ballot. And Artiles connected him with the attorney who notarized his forms.
Investigators said Artiles knew Rodriguez did not live within District 37, and told him to bring identification with an old address within the district as they were figuring out the paperwork. Though Rodriguez once lived in Palmetto Bay, he lived in Boca Raton before the election. He now lives in Delray Beach.
In the end, Rodriguez’s paperwork contained false information related to his address, finances and more. Artiles and Rodriguez both are facing felony charges for false swearing in connection to voting or election.
The arrest warrant noted that Artiles flew to Tallahassee to file Rodriguez’s paperwork with the Florida Divisions of Elections, and hand-delivered a $1,187.88 check that paid for the qualifying fee to appear on the ballot.
The Herald requested surveillance camera footage of the outside of the building last November, but attorneys at the Division of Elections pushed back, declaring the footage “confidential and exempt.”
The qualifying fee was paid for with $2,000 Artiles gave Rodriguez in cash to open a campaign account, investigators said.
The money trail
Between June 2020 and November 2020, Artiles paid Rodriguez $44,708 in exchange for having him appear on the ballot, investigators said.
In June, a few days after his name appeared on the ballot and not having been paid, Rodriguez went to Artiles’ house and requested $3,000 for a “business transaction.” Artiles grabbed the cash from his home safe, and told him he wanted “30 percent of whatever profit” Rodriguez made from it.
The same thing happened three more times, which frustrated Rodriguez because, he told investigators, he thought the money was owed to him. Investigators said Rodriguez took the money because “he desperately needed it.” Artiles documented the transactions, and photo copies are included in the arrest warrant.
In October, Artiles paid Rodriguez $10,900 to buy a used Range Rover, which Artiles wanted to get for his daughter. That cashier’s check was made out to Rodriguez’s company from Artiles’ Atlas Consultants, LLC.
The car, however, did not exist, investigators said.
“It was a fiction created by Rodriguez to get more of the money that he felt was owed,” according to the arrest warrant by Miami Detective Eutimio Cepero, of the corruption task force.
A few weeks later, in late October, Rodriguez called Artiles for more money. Artiles texted him a photo of his credit card and told him he had permission to make two purchases totaling $3,500. Rodriguez used the credit card three more times after that without Artiles’ permission, according to prosecutors.
In November, a week after the election, Artiles wired money to his landlord to pay for rent.
“Done, Brother,” Artiles wrote in a text. “$2400.”
Rodriguez also asked for money to pay for legal proceedings and attorney’s fees. Artiles arranged for Rodriguez to get $9,000 through a third party.
Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau Chief Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.