A public corruption investigation that took root in a single Miami-Dade legislative race has roped in prominent players across Florida over the last several months, including a GOP-linked research firm in Gainesville, a top not-for-profit Miami hospital network and a veteran Republican operative who leads a Tallahassee-based political organization.
A circuit court judge on Wednesday announced the trial would begin Aug. 30. Records obtained by the Miami Herald show that since at least April, investigators have been flexing their subpoena power to gather information from an array of people and organizations and financial records that go back several years.
The eight-month investigation is focused on former Sen. Frank Artiles, a Republican operative, Alexis “Pedro” Rodriguez, an auto-parts dealer with financial woes and an alleged plot to successfully sway the outcome of Miami-Dade’s Senate District 37 race in favor of the Republican candidate.
Prosecutors allege Artiles recruited Rodriguez — a longtime acquaintance who used to live in the district and had the same surname as the incumbent Democrat — and promised to pay him $50,000. In return, Rodriguez would change his party affiliation from Republican to no party affiliation and enter the race. The no-party candidate got more than 6,000 votes in a race decided by just over two dozen, ousting incumbent Democrat José Javier Rodríguez after a manual recount.
Alex Rodriguez, according to arrest documents, believed Artiles would pay him because the Republican operative told him: “We have money in an account.” Ultimately, the actual amount Artiles paid Rodriguez was around $45,000, some of which came from stacks of cash stored in Artiles’ Palmetto Bay home, prosecutors say
The transactions have spun into a chase for answers as to where the money came from — and whether secretive political groups have played a role in more than $500,000 spent on political mail advertisements to bolster Rodriguez’s candidacy and two other no-party candidates who ran in two other competitive state Senate races, one in Miami-Dade and another in Seminole County, all won by Republicans.
Artiles and Rodriguez are facing felony charges. While no other parties have been charged in connection to the case, court records show Artiles was also in possession of campaign documents from the no-party candidate running in Miami-Dade’s Senate District 39.
In arrest documents, prosecutors also identified a third party who withdrew $9,000 from a First Horizon Bank branch in Palmetto Bay, and gave the cash to Rodriguez. The third party has yet to be named or charged, but court records show a Facebook friend of Artiles has retained an attorney as prosecutors look into one of his accounts at that same bank. The friend’s attorney did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Artiles and Rodriguez have both pleaded not guilty. Rodriguez, however, admitted to the Florida Ethics Commission that he violated state ethics rules for accepting money to enter the race and filing inaccurate campaign documents. He has agreed to pay a $6,500 fine for the violations, which are completely separate from the criminal case.
The information building the case
As Rodriguez and Artiles await trial, state investigators are collecting witness statements, bank records, emails, phone records, contract agreements and surveillance footage from dozens of people who may have “relevant” information about the alleged scheme and payments, records show.
The list of witnesses and subpoenaed information, provided to the Herald’s lawyers by the state attorney’s office, has sprawling tentacles.
Most prominently, it includes emails, contracts and invoices from Data Targeting Inc., a Gainesville research firm operated by Pat Bainter that runs campaigns for Senate Republican leadership, with Artiles’ Miami Firm, Atlas Consulting LLC; as well as bank records from a Tallahassee-based group called Let’s Preserve the American Dream, run by Ryan Tyson, one of Florida’s most prominent Republican strategists and pollsters.
The evidence list also ties in Baptist Hospital of Miami, which was served a subpoena for “email correspondence between investigators and an employee at Baptist,” and lists “Wendy Kemp, AVP Baptist Health of South Florida,” as a “witness” in the case.
After this story was originally published, Baptist Health spokeswoman Georgi Pipkin said in an email that Kemp is a compliance officer whose job is to answer inquiries from various agencies and that she “had nothing to do with this story.”
“Baptist is not aware of any business relationship with the individuals named in the story. Baptist uses approved PPE from reliable sources,” Pipkin said.
A manager for a hospital in Honduras has also been linked to the investigation in relation to “attempted purchase or sale of medical or PPE equipment/gear.”
In arrest documents, investigators said the only “legitimate deal” Artiles and Rodriguez made during the election cycle had to do with PPE contracts. “No deal ever came to fruition,” investigators said after interviews with interested parties.
Prosecutors have also sought the bank records from a Facebook friend of Artiles, merchants who made sales to Artiles or Rodriguez and phone records — including photos, text message and call logs — from Alex Alvarado, a Tallahassee-based Republican strategist who has admitted to being behind two political committees that bought the political mail advertisements that promoted the no-party candidates’ campaigns in the three state Senate races.
Investigators are also looking at mailbox contracts in Florida, Colorado and Georgia for those political committees — The Truth PC and Our Florida PC — and Grow United, a secretive corporation registered in the state of Delaware that funded the mailers.
In Miami-Dade, Rodriguez and 81-year-old Celso Alfonso — who ran in Senate District 39 — were registered Republicans until they switched before qualifying for the 2020 ballot. The two candidates had identical campaign finance records, both only reporting $2,000 loans to themselves, and using the money to pay for the $1,187.88 filing fee required of no-party candidates for state Senate.
Investigators have already interviewed Alfonso’s wife, and have sought election records related to Rodriguez and Alfonso kept by the Miami-Dade elections office and the Florida Department of State. Alfonso told a Herald reporter that Artiles recruited him in a barber shop.
Sens. Ileana Garcia and Ana Maria Rodriguez, the two Republican candidates in the Miami races, have not been interviewed by investigators or accused of wrongdoing by prosecutors. In interviews with the Miami Herald, they have both denied having any involvement in or knowledge of the alleged scheme.
The actual substance behind the long list of records has not been made public yet. Artiles’ defense attorneys filed a motion to hide the documents citing, in part, the privacy concerns to “customers/clients of Mr. Artiles, friends and family members that are not witnesses in this case.”
The Herald filed a motion for the court to release the relevant records in the case. The Orlando Sentinel and New York Times followed suit.
Judge Andrea Wolfson, who is presiding over the case, has not yet made a decision on the release of the records. The next update in the case will be July 6.
Ties to a prominent pollster
It is still unclear whether prosecutors sought financial documents linked to a Tyson-led political action committee that was closed in 2016 or an active tax-exempt “social welfare” organization Tyson created with the same name. The Orlando Sentinel reported last week that the state obtained these documents.
The political action committee, which was shuttered in 2016, was funded by utility giant Florida Power & Light, Tampa mining business the Mosaic Company and other groups backed by Disney, U.S. Sugar Corporation and Florida Crystals Corporation; and tax records from 2016 to 2018 show the “social welfare” organization, whose tax-exempt status did not require it to disclose its donors, has done work with Data Targeting, the research firm that has also been subpoenaed in the case and that was previously involved in a 2018 vote-siphoning scheme.
The political committee donated to both Republican and Democrat campaigns.
Tyson declined to comment when reached by the Herald. Ed Griffith, a spokesman for the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s office, did not clarify which groups investigators are looking into.
“It would be inappropriate for us to be discussing materials/aspects of an ongoing criminal prosecution,” he said in an email.
Miami Herald staff writer Samantha J. Gross reported from Miami; Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau reporter Ana Ceballos reported from Tallahassee.