Trial may expose Florida’s dark money behind spoiler candidates

Former state senator Frank Artiles will be arraigned Friday in the 11th Judicial Circuit in Miami. He faces felony charges for allegedly recruiting and paying an acquaintance to run as a no-party candidate to sway the outcome of an election.
Former state senator Frank Artiles, R-Miami.
Former state senator Frank Artiles, R-Miami.
Published April 14, 2021|Updated April 14, 2021

MIAMI — An alleged election scheme that stumped Florida’s political world for over half a year is about to spill into court, as former Republican Senator Frank Artiles is set to plead not guilty and ask for a jury trial in a high-profile public corruption case.

Artiles, who will be arraigned Friday in the 11th Judicial Circuit in Miami, is facing several felony charges for allegedly recruiting and paying Alexis Pedro Rodriguez, an auto-parts dealer and longtime acquaintance, to run as a no-party candidate in Miami-Dade’s Senate District 37 race to sway the outcome of the election. In a court filing from March uploaded to the hearing docket Friday, he revealed his intention to enter a not-guilty plea, ask for the jury trial and request discovery evidence held by the state attorney’s office.

Rodriguez is also facing felony charges and will be arraigned Friday. He will also plead not guilty.

And while prosecutors have charged Artiles and Rodriguez related to the scheme, the investigation is still open, and many questions remain on whether the case could expand to other 2020 Florida Senate races that also featured mysterious no-party candidates.

Investigators, when searching Artiles’ Palmetto Bay home last month, found he was in possession of campaign documents of another no-party candidate who ran in Miami-Dade’s Senate District 39.

The no-party candidate in District 39, Celso Alfonso, has not been named or charged in the investigation. When asked about it Monday, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle’s office declined to comment on whether the case now included Artiles’ involvement in the District 39 race.

Reached at his West Miami-Dade home last week, Alfonso, 81, declined to comment to a reporter about his involvement in the alleged vote-siphoning scheme or whether he was paid, but he said he met Artiles at the barbershop they frequent.

Republican Sens. Ileana Garcia, who represents District 37, and Ana Maria Rodriguez, who represents District 39, have both denied knowing Artiles had any involvement in their races. Rundle said last month there is no evidence to suggest Garcia was aware of Artiles’ alleged ploy. Rodriguez told the Herald she has not been contacted by Rundle’s office.

Investigators are also probing who was behind $550,000 that paid for political mail pieces that advertised the no-party candidates. The money has so far been untraceable, as have portions of the nearly $50,000 investigators say Artiles paid Rodriguez.

Prosecutors have yet to name a third person who is accused of withdrawing $9,000 from a bank to give to Rodriguez.

Alexis ‘Alex’ Rodriguez leaves a Miami-Dade jail

Follow the dark money

Documents reviewed by the Herald show that Alex Alvarado, a young Tallahassee-based Republican strategist, was behind two political committees, The Truth and Our Florida, that were set up to buy political mail advertisements that praised no-party candidates as progressives in three Senate races.

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Alvarado said no one hired him to execute the effort. He said it was a “business venture.” His stepfather, Luis Rodriguez, operates Advance Impressions LLC, which printed $550,000 worth of political mail ads, according to campaign finance records.

“This is an independent expenditure effort. Per law, there was no coordination with these candidates and especially not with anyone who may or may not have recruited them,” Alvarado said in a text message to the Herald.

That means that the money was not spent in coordination with and independent of the official campaigns, per Alvarado.

Two of the no-party candidates, Alfonso and Rodriguez, are linked to Artiles’ criminal case.

The third no-party candidate, Jestine Iannotti, appeared on the ballot in Senate District 9 in Central Florida. The race was won by Sen. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford. Investigators have not indicated whether Iannotti, Brodeur or the race are part of the investigation.

But there is a connection between Brodeur and Artiles. The two are longtime friends, and Artiles publicly supported his candidacy. Over celebratory drinks at Brodeur’s election night party at a Central Florida bar, Artiles publicly bragged about planting Rodriguez to run in the Miami Senate race.

When asked if he was aware of Artiles’ involvement or if we he was aware of any discussions about putting a no-party candidate to help him in his race, Brodeur texted a Herald reporter: “No.” He also said he has not been contacted by state or federal investigators.

The no-party candidates in all the three Senate races did no independent campaigning. But the political mail advertisements promoted them, and featured messaging on issues that historically appeal to Democrats in an apparent attempt to siphon votes from Democratic candidates. That proved decisive in the SD 37 race, which Garcia won by just 32 votes. Rodriguez received more than 6,000 votes. The other two Senate races were decided by much larger margins.

Much remains unknown about the entity that paid for the political mailers. But documents, which the Herald reviewed but could not independently verify because they are not available in public databases, show photocopies of two checks: $220,000 made out from Grow United, Inc. to the political committee Our Florida, and $80,000 to the political committee, The Truth.

Together, both committees spent $550,000 to pay for the political mail ads, meaning the checks only show about half of the payments that went toward the coordinated effort.

The political committees had initially reported that an entity named Proclivity was the donor. But after the November election, the committees changed the name of the donor to Grow United, Inc., according to campaign finance records.

Corporate records show both Proclivity and Grow United are tax-exempt corporations registered in Delaware that are chaired by the same person: Richard Alexander. Grow United has no information on file with the state of Delaware, and 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. Proclivity, however, is in good standing with the state.

According to an image of an email shown to the Herald, Alexander emailed Alvarado on Dec. 7, 2020 to request a correction to campaign finance records. The authenticity of the email could not be independently verified.

“In recent media reporters and newspaper articles, it was reported that one of my entities, Proclivity Inc. contributed to Florida political committees for which you are associated,” Alexander wrote. “However, it was in fact Grow United that made the contributions. Please make any amendments to reflect this correction.”

“Yikes,” Alvarado responded. “We will make the correction immediately!”

Alexander didn’t respond to requests for comment. Several attempts to reach him by email and by phone went unanswered. Details about his identity, his role in the scheme and in Florida politics have been difficult to discern.

Money ropes in Democrats

Grow United’s contributions in the 2020 election totaled $1.4 million — $765,000 of which went to the Florida Democratic Party, the campaign arm of Senate Democrats and other Democrat-affiliated political committees. An additional $697,500 went to Republicans.

Florida Democratic Party Chair Manny Diaz declined to comment on the $170,000 donation the party received. Diaz became chair of the party in January.

Proclivity had never given any political contributions in Florida or in any other state prior to popping up in campaign finance reports in October 2020. Unlike Grow United Inc., which contributed at the state and federal level, including a $100,000 contribution to Wingman Pac, an organization whose mission included electing Scott Franklin to represent Florida’s 15th congressional district. Franklin beat incumbent Republican Ross Spano.

Christian Ulvert, a spokesman for the Florida Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which funds campaigns for Senate Democrats, also declined to comment and referred questions to Senate Democratic leader Gary Farmer, who runs the committee.

In an interview, Farmer said he did not know who was behind Grow United Inc., a tax-exempt organization that is not required to disclose its donors, which contributed $360,000 to FDLCC.

“There are a lot of groups out there that contribute to both sides, but I don’t believe for a second that they were in fact the ones that did it. I think it is a ruse,” Farmer said. “I think it is a misinterpretation. I think that the original filing was correct, and I think they just did that so that people like you would ask that very question.”

When asked if he thinks the money should be returned, he declined to comment. He said he would not comment until he had proof that the entity was in fact Grow United, and not Proclivity.

But, in general terms, Farmer said, “I am not going to return money from Donor A just because I don’t like other groups that Donor A gave to.”

Farmer has called on Garcia to resign. Florida’s Democrats in Congress have also asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the political committees and the money used to pay for the political mailers.

“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 last month.

Mystery candidacies coming to light

Alfonso’s candidacy shared similarities to Rodriguez’s. Both candidates’ email addresses were Gmail accounts with identical patterns, and they also had identical campaign finance records. Both men reported $2,000 loans to themselves and used the money to pay for the $1,187.88 filing fee required of no-party candidates for state Senate.

They were also both registered Republicans when they voted in the 2018 midterm elections, and qualified for the 2020 election on the same day, with checks hand-delivered in Tallahassee and time-stamped within minutes of one another.

Alfonso received 3,639 votes out of 222,330 votes cast in the District 39 race, which Republican Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez won with 55 percent of the vote.

Iannotti, the no-party candidate in the Central Florida race, moved to Sweden last month, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

In her race, Brodeur received 141,544 votes to defeat Democrat Patricia Sigman by 7,644 votes. Iannotti received 5,787 votes.