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No-party candidate in Florida Senate race agrees to ethics violations

The fine from the Florida Ethics Commission is separate from a case in criminal court.
Authorities take pictures of former state Senator Frank Artiles' car as they raid his home in Palmetto Bay on Wednesday, March 17, 2021.
Authorities take pictures of former state Senator Frank Artiles' car as they raid his home in Palmetto Bay on Wednesday, March 17, 2021.
Published Jun. 8

MIAMI — As the high-profile public corruption case revolving around former state Sen. Frank Artiles continues to play out in court, the no-party candidate accused of being paid and recruited to run in the Senate District 37 election was slapped with a fine for his involvement in entering the race.

In Miami District Court, Artiles’ defense team continues to squabble with the state attorney’s office over how much of a disc brimming with potential evidence should be made public related to an alleged scheme to recruit and pay Alexis Pedro Rodriguez to run as a no-party candidate in the state senate race.

Meanwhile at the Florida Ethics Commission, Rodriguez has agreed to pay a $6,500 fine for filing an inaccurate financial disclosure form and for accepting money with the understanding that he would change his party affiliation from Republican to no party affiliation, qualify to run and file a false disclosure form.

The agreement, called a joint stipulation, was signed by Rodriguez’s lawyer, William Barzee, and an ethics commission advocate last week and was provided to the Miami Herald after a public records request. It differs from his stance in criminal court, where both Rodriguez and Artiles pleaded not guilty to a slew of other charges.

The charges in the criminal case — filed in the 11th Judicial Circuit in Miami-Dade County — accuse Artiles of paying Rodriguez nearly $50,000 to run as an independent in Miami-Dade’s Senate District 37 race. Rodriguez is also accused of submitting false voter information that said he lived in Palmetto Bay, though he lived in Boca Raton at the time of the election. Knowingly filing an incorrect address with the state is a third-degree felony.

The goal of the scheme, prosecutors allege, was to “confuse voters and influence the outcome” of the race to ultimately represent a large swath that includes downtown Miami, Coral Gables and Pinecrest.

The Florida Ethics Commission will take up the stipulation at its July meeting to approve the agreement.

The ethics complaint was brought against Rodriguez in November 2020 by Juan Carlos Planas, a former Republican lawmaker and current Democrat elections attorney who represented former Sen. José Javier Rodríguez in the Senate District 37 race.

GOP candidate Ileana Garcia, a television personality and co-founder of Latinas for Trump, won the race by 32 votes. Rodriguez, who shares a surname with the Democratic incumbent, received more than 6,000 votes.

Planas wrote in a text message that it was “obvious” to him when he read the financial disclosure reports that it was suspicious as to where Rodriguez got $2,000 to loan his campaign.

According to campaign documents, Rodriguez, an auto-parts dealer and longtime acquaintance of Artiles, declared his $115,000 annual income from his auto parts business, some credit card debt, a house and jewelry. In an amendment to his financial disclosure, he listed a $4,000 baseball card collection and payments to his childrens’ private school.

“I am glad to see that he is taking responsibility for what he has done,” Planas wrote. “Hopefully his cooperation in all matters will lead to justice.”

Artiles and Rodriguez were both charged with four third-degree felonies related to the scheme, including conspiracy to make or accept campaign contributions in excess of legal limits, accepting and making those excess campaign contributions, false swearing in connection to an election and submitting false voter information.

Under state law, those charges carry sentences of up to five years in prison if convicted.

Squabble over discovery

Though the case is just getting started and no court dates have been set, attorneys have begun going back and forth as to what evidence should be made public in the discovery process.

Related: Search warrant reveals ex-Florida senator had documents on two spoiler candidates

Last month, Artiles’ attorneys filed a 97-page motion for a limited protective order on the evidence, arguing that the discovery — obtained through a March search warrant served on Artiles at his home — contains a large amount of material regarding parties they say that have nothing to do with the case, like text messages and phone records between Artiles and his wife, children and private clients.

The Miami Herald requested copies of the discovery — information about witnesses and evidence that could be presented in a trial — the first week of May.

Judge Andrea Wolfson was expected to decide during a status update hearing Monday morning whether the discovery would remain temporarily protected and unavailable to the public, but no conclusion was made.

Prosecutor Timothy VanderGeisen argued that some of the documents released to the defense team were unredacted because they were sent to Artiles’ team as “a head start” and that the public discovery file will comply with Florida’s public records laws, including necessary redaction. He added, however, that defense attorneys cannot dictate what is and isn’t relevant to the case.

“I’m clearly asking that the court not put any limits on discovery beyond confidentiality issues,” VanderGeisen said, noting that there are other witnesses and relevant people who communicated with Artiles over the course of the campaign and are not necessarily named in the case.

Frank Quintero, one of Artiles’ defense attorneys, told Wolfson that his motion “is designed to avoid the disclosure of confidential information and personal identification information from the defendant from third parties,” noting that the discovery had items such as Artiles’ medical conditions, bank records and phone records connected to friends and family “that have nothing to do with this case.”

Quintero then requested that the defense counsel meet in a private Zoom “breakout room” to present the judge with evidence to show that the discovery file included documents that the public doesn’t have a right to see.

The Herald objected to the private sidebar, stating that the law requires the court to give media prior notice and an opportunity to object before a closed meeting can happen.

The judge said she’d “fall on the sword of sorts” for the error, and called for another meeting June 23 to decide on the discovery issue, so that the media could be properly noticed. In the meantime, she instructed VanderGeisen and the defense counsel to meet and try to get closer in agreement to what should be redacted from the discovery file.

“We may reach agreement as to what is relevant and what is not ... it certainly would be a lot narrower than what we’re talking about right now,” defense attorney Jose Quinon said during the hearing Monday. “Because right now, we are like worlds apart.”

What happened in 2020

A few days after the November election, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle’s office began investigating potential elections law violations in the Senate District 37 race.

By March, investigators executed a search warrant at Artiles’ Palmetto Bay house, seizing his cellphone, computers and other documents, including campaign documents of a second, spoiler no-party candidate named Celso Alfonso, who ran in Miami-Dade’s competitive Senate District 39 race.

Related: Law enforcement raids former state Sen. Frank Artiles' home

A day later, Artiles was arrested and charged on suspicion of offering Rodriguez the money to “confuse voters and influence the outcome” of the race.