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Florida’s Senate Democrats want U.S. inquiry into state election

Miami-Dade’s state attorney, who is leading a state-level investigation into the case of the sham no-party candidate in Senate District 37, said she’d welcome a federal investigation into the race.
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. 26
Updated Mar. 26

Florida’s Senate Democrats on Friday called on U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to investigate what they called “illegal activity perpetrated by former Sen. Frank Artiles and his co-conspirators” by propping up a sham candidate in an attempt to influence the outcome of a South Florida state Senate race.

“We believe that there is significant evidence that the criminal activity crossed state lines and therefore violated federal laws including federal tax laws,’' Farmer said a week after Artiles, a former Republican state senator from Hialeah, was arrested on felony charges of offering no-party candidate Alexis “Alex” Rodriguez $50,000 to run as an independent in Senate District 37.

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

Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, who is leading a state-level investigation into the allegations from the 2020 election, said in a statement Friday morning that she welcomes a federal investigation into District 37 and two other state Senate races with no-party candidates and some similar circumstances.

“Given the potential multi-state and multi-jurisdictional aspects of what has been outlined so far concerning these Florida elections, a cooperative investigational approach can offer the best option to fully uncover the truth and may supply the most aggressive approach aimed at keeping our election process clean and transparent,” Fernandez Rundle said in a statement.

In addition to adding his voice to calls by the Miami-Dade state attorney and Florida’s Democratic members of Congress for the federal government to investigate possible campaign finance violations against Artiles, Senate Democratic Caucus Chair Gary Farmer urged Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson to create a select committee to conduct his own probe.

Farmer said that while there is “no indication whatsoever that President Simpson was involved in this personally,’' he led the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, which “stood to benefit the most” from the defeat of Democratic incumbent Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez in District 37.

Ileana Garcia won the election by just 32 votes out of more than 215,000 cast.

“When you lead a caucus, you know, the buck stops with you, and the people you hire to work for you,’' said Farmer, whose party lost three closely-fought Senate races to Simpson in November. “I would hope that if he had no involvement that he would welcome this investigation, because it would clear him, but it would also help us get to the truth and see how this exactly happened.”

The Miami Herald found last December that Artiles got involved in the District 37 race when he boasted about planting 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 using wads of cash from his home safe. Artiles is facing third-degree felony campaign-finance-related charges connected to illegal campaign contributions and false swearing in connection with voting or elections. Both carry sentences of up to five years if convicted.

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

In a statement to the Miami Herald through Simpson spokesperson Katie Betta, Simpson said Farmer never spoke to him about his request for a select committee to investigate the matter.

“I have said from day one that I welcome a full investigation,’' the statement said. “Law enforcement is doing their job and the last thing they need is interference from Tallahassee. We have full confidence in the ability of law enforcement and should not interfere.”

Farmer countered: “No one is seeking interference. I’m suggesting collaboration.’' He said the committee should be bi-partisan with subpoena power to fully investigate the allegations.

“As the constitutionally mandated arbiters of our elections, we are obligated to fully investigate any and all allegations of wrongdoing in the election of our members,’' Farmer wrote in his letter to Simpson.

Farmer was asked about a political committee reported to have given $550,000 to the Florida Democratic Party and other affiliated committees, including the one that led Senate Democratic campaigns.

Farmer at first asserted that he believes that prosecutors have obtained evidence from Artiles’ laptop that he changed the name from Proclivity to Grow United Inc., a tax-exempt corporation that is also registered in Delaware and whose address is a post office box in Denver. The change in the name was first reported by WPLG-10′s Glenna Milberg.

After the press conference Friday, Farmer said he misspoke, and said he believes that the prosecutors should be able to find Artiles’ fingerprints on the amended report.

“I believe the change was made in an attempt to get Democrats to back off,’' he said. “We believe the original report was the correct report, and that the entity that contributed to the Democrats did not contribute to the funding of Rodriguez.”

Juan Carlos Planas, an election attorney and former Republican state lawmaker who represented the incumbent senator during the Senate District 37 recount, said it’s not uncommon for state attorneys to defer to the federal government because of local political issues or other conflicts. Planas pointed out that Fernandez Rundle’s budget is decided by the Legislature, which is dominated by the Republican Party.

“If Kathy is afraid for her budget, she’s not going to follow the money trail. We need the feds,” Planas said. “I believe Kathy will do this investigation to the best of her ability but it is a legitimate concern.”

On Thursday, Florida’s entire Democratic U.S. House delegation also sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice asking for an investigation. The lawmakers allege that the interstate transfer of money by entities related to three state senate races could amount to federal campaign finance violations.

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

The Democrats argued that the potentially illegal transfer of campaign funds across state lines warrants scrutiny from the federal government.

Mailers funded by shadowy political committees The Truth and Our Florida 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.

Last Friday, the Florida Democratic Party also called for Sen. Ileana Garcia’s resignation from the state Senate and for a special election to be held in Miami-Dade Senate District 37.