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‘A cloud of corruption’: Democrats want DOJ probe of Florida state Senate races

All of Florida’s Democratic U.S. House members sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland following the arrest of former state Sen. Frank Artiles.
Authorities take pictures of former state Senator Frank Artilesí car as they raid his home in Palmetto Bay on Wednesday, March 17, 2021.
Authorities take pictures of former state Senator Frank Artilesí car as they raid his home in Palmetto Bay on Wednesday, March 17, 2021. [ PEDRO PORTAL | Miami Herald ]
Published Mar. 25
Updated Mar. 25

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A week after former Republican state Sen. Frank Artiles was arrested on felony charges of offering no-party candidate Alexis “Alex” Rodriguez $50,000 to run as an independent in a South Florida state Senate race, Florida’s Democrats in Congress are asking Attorney General Merrick Garland for an expansive corruption investigation.

All 11 of Florida’s Democratic U.S. House members sent a letter to Garland on Thursday, arguing that the potential illicit transfer of campaign funds across state lines warrants scrutiny from the federal government.

The lawmakers said in their letter that “a cloud of corruption hangs over Florida’s 2020 election cycle, which thus far, has received only a limited formal investigation.”

“It is clear that the ultimate goal of the scheme outlined in legal records by the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s office could not have been accomplished without the coordinated support of two state-level political committees, The Truth and Our Florida, which were set up for the express purpose of raising the name identification of these ghost candidates, and to confuse voters with messaging that mirrored the Democratic campaigns,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter shared with the Miami Herald.

Related: Former Florida Sen. Artiles paid no-party candidate more than $40K, arrest warrant charges

The Democrats wrote that mailers funded by the political committees were tied to an entity called Proclivity, which was registered in Delaware and used a UPS box in Atlanta as its mailing address.

The two political committees accepted $550,000 in untraceable contributions from Proclivity, which paid for what is believed to be hundreds of thousands of mailed political advertisements in support of no-party candidates. The mailers were sent in key Senate Districts 9, 37 and 39 in the month leading up to the Nov. 3 election.

Republicans won all three races, which were considered competitive.

The mailers talked up no-party candidates, who did no campaigning of their own, as champions for progressive causes in an apparent attempt to drive Democratic voters away from the Democratic candidates in those races.

The letter to Garland was led by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who represents parts of Broward and Miami-Dade counties in Washington. South Florida Reps. Alcee Hastings, Lois Frankel, Ted Deutch and Frederica Wilson also signed the letter.

The letter comes days after Artiles and Rodriguez turned themselves in on charges related to a scheme to sway the outcome of a key Florida Senate race.

The Miami Herald found last December that Artiles got involved in Miami-Dade’s Senate District 37 race when he recruited longtime acquaintance Rodriguez, an auto-parts dealer who then lived outside the district in Boca Raton, to run in the race. An arrest affidavit says Artiles offered Rodriguez $50,000 for his candidacy, and ended up paying him just under that amount.

Latinas for Trump co-founder Ileana Garcia won the Senate race by 32 votes out of more than 215,000 cast, over ousted incumbent Democrat José Javier Rodríguez, who shares a last name with the no-party candidate.

Artiles is now 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. Rodriguez is facing the same charges. Their arraignments are set for April 16.

The lawmakers say allegations in a 25-page affidavit made public last week could violate federal campaign finance laws, in addition to state law, and run afoul of Internal Revenue Service codes.

“Based on the suspicious practices outlined in this letter, including the likelihood of several potential illegal interstate transfers of funds, we strongly believe that much greater scrutiny of this matter at the federal level is warranted,” the lawmakers wrote. “It is also a pressing public concern as to whether any fraud occurred in furtherance of a federal criminal conspiracy designed to influence the outcome of one or more elections.”

After the 2020 election, the political committees amended their campaign finance filings and changed the name of the entity that paid for the mailers to Grow United Inc., a tax-exempt corporation that, like Proclivity, is also registered in Delaware, and whose address is a post office box in Denver.

There is no way to confirm Grow United Inc. donated the money because the entity has no information on file with the state of Delaware. It is “delinquent and not in good standing” for failure to file its annual report with the state, according to its registered agent, The Corporation Trust Company.

According to campaign filings, Grow United donated $1.4 million to Florida causes during the 2020 election cycle, including $530,000 combined to the Florida Democratic Party and the Florida Democratic Legislative Campaign, a committee that serves as the political arm for Senate Democrats.

The group donated to other political committees that backed Democrats but also made large donations to groups like Liberate Florida, which spent its money on contributions to GOP candidates, consultants and conservative political committees in October.

The congressional delegation is not the first group of Democrats to call for further action related to the no-party candidate scheme. Last Friday, Florida Democrats called for Garcia’s resignation from the state Senate and for a special election to be held in Miami-Dade Senate District 37.

Related: State Democrats call for special election after arrests in sham candidate case

State Democratic Chair Manny Diaz also said that the party was looking at “potential referrals to the Department of Justice.”

“We are exploring every avenue that we have,” he told reporters at a press conference Friday. “This election can’t stand, because this election is tainted.”

And the House Democrats argued that unlike former President Donald Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud, the evidence in the Florida state Senate races merits scrutiny.

“Unlike the dangerous, baseless claims of voter fraud impacting the 2020 Election, in this case, evidence actually exists that a multi-state fraud conspiracy was committed against Florida’s voters,” the lawmakers wrote.

Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau reporter Ana Ceballos contributed to this report.