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Records provide more details in sham 2020 Florida candidate probe

Records show a Palm Harbor woman was paid to chair a political committee.
Frank Artiles leaves the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center in Miami on March 18, 2021.
Frank Artiles leaves the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center in Miami on March 18, 2021.
Published Jul. 24
Updated Jul. 24

TALLAHASSEE — A young Republican political operative who is also the subject of a public corruption investigation into former Republican state Sen. Frank Artiles made an offer to a recent college graduate last September: He would pay her $1,500 to chair a political committee and in exchange, she would have to do nothing.

At the time, 25-year-old Hailey DeFilippis, of Palm Harbor, had just found out she was pregnant and was “freaking out about money.”

So, she took up Alex Alvarado on the offer. And put her name down as chair of The Truth, a dark money-funded political committee that spent $180,000 on political mail advertisements promoting sham candidates in key 2020 state Senate elections — two in Miami-Dade and one in Central Florida.

When reporters started calling her with questions about the committee, Alvarado paid her $2,500 more for her “inconvenience.”

“I was hired for $1,500. Like that was the deal. And then he was generous enough to give me more due to the stress it was causing me,” DeFilippis said in a sworn statement she gave to Miami prosecutors in December.

DeFilippis, who said she connected with Alvarado through her high school friend, testified that she didn’t know anything of the scheme to influence the 2020 election. But her statements, and other documents released late Friday, provide new details into the breadth of the criminal investigation into Artiles and his long-time acquaintance, Alexis Pedro Rodriguez.

Prosecutors say Rodriguez was recruited by Artiles and paid some $44,000 to change his party affiliation from Republican to no party to qualify on the ballot and attempt to sway the outcome of the Miami-Dade Senate District 37 election. GOP candidate Illeana Garcia won the race by 32 votes. Rodriguez, who shared the same surname as the Democratic incumbent, received more than 6,000 votes.

Related: Trial may expose Florida's dark money behind spoiler candidate

Between June 15 and Nov. 15, 2020, Artiles was under contract to work for veteran Republican political operative Pat Bainter for $15,000 a month, court documents show. Bainter paid Artiles $90,000 and reimbursed him for his travel, a courier service and $4,000 for “research,” according to those documents.

That line item prompted Bainter’s chief financial officer at Data Targeting Inc., Lance Gardner, to question its legitimacy, according to emails released Friday.

“Is this good? There is a line item for $4,000 for ‘research,’” Gardner asked.

Bainter replied: “It is.” In a later email he adds, “You and I will talk.”

In an email from Artiles on Sept. 14, the former lawmaker made it clear that Bainter is calling the shots. Artiles wrote: “Attached is the September invoice for your review and approval. I am standing by for orders. Please remember I have 6 PC’s for independents if needed.” The reference to “PC’s” most likely refers to political committees.

Artiles signed a contract with Bainter on June 9, 2020. The next day, Rodriguez met Artiles at Artiles’ Palmetto Bay residence to fill out campaign forms, according to investigators who noted in an arrest affidavit that Rodriguez had “no prior knowledge as to what forms needed to be completed to qualify as a candidate for elected office and relied on Artiles’ instructions.”

Neither Bainter nor Gardner have responded to phone calls or emails seeking comment since the Times/Herald learned they were served subpoenas. The powerful GOP-linked research firm, based in Gainesville, also served as a general consultant for Republican Senate campaigns during the 2020 election cycle.

Senate President Wilton Simpson, who ran the Republican Senate campaigns during the 2020 election cycle, has said that he had nothing to do with the effort by either Artiles or the political mailers.

“We had no involvement, nor were we aware of outside involvement in the race,” Erin Isaac, a spokeswoman for the political committee that runs Republican campaigns in the Senate, and Simpson, who heads the political committee, said in March.

Related: Ahead of Frank Artiles trial, top Florida political players scrutinized

What’s the extent of the probe?

The records released Friday show that Miami investigators are looking beyond Artiles and Rodriguez, who so far are the only ones facing criminal charges, to find the source of the money and understand the breadth of the alleged scheme.

Investigators are also searching for the source of more than half a million dollars spent on political mailers that bolstered the candidacy of three no-party candidates in the three Senate races, including Rodriguez. Only in Senate District 37 did the votes for the no-party candidate prove to be decisive.

Altogether, a dark-money group called Grow United spent $550,000 on what has been reported in campaign documents as political mailers, paid for by two political committees, The Truth and Our Florida. Both political committees were chaired by young women with no known political experience who were recruited by Alvarado.

The political mailers were sent to voters in October 2020 and talked up the no-party candidates, who had done no independent campaigning, as candidates with progressive ideals in an apparent attempt to appeal to Democratic voters.

Alvarado told the Miami Herald in April that 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. Alvarado’s stepfather is among those who have been interviewed as part of the investigation, records show.

“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 at the time.

Related: Ethics panel gets tough on sham no-party candidate in Miami race

Tim VanderGiesen, a public corruption attorney in the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, told DeFilippis in December that Alvarado was a “possible subject” of the investigation. When reached by phone, Alvarado declined to comment. No criminal charges have been filed against him.

Investigators say Artiles’ recruitment of Rodriguez as a sham candidate in the race stemmed from a Facebook private message sent at 4 a.m. on May 15, 2020. “Call me,” Artiles wrote to Rodriguez, according to screenshots of the conversation. “I have a question for you.”

Between June 2020 and November 2020, Artiles is accused of paying Rodriguez $44,708 in exchange for Rodriguez changing his party affiliation from Republican to no party and qualifying for the ballot.

Family ties

Documents released Friday also reveal a criss-crossing web of connections involving Artiles’ brother-in-law and the family’s car dealership as part of the investigation.

Artiles’ brother-in-law, Wade Scales, paid Rodriguez $9,000 at Artiles’ request, Scales said in his deposition. Artiles told Scales he would pay him back in two weeks, with interest, Scales said. It was a lot of money for Scales, he said in his deposition, but he said he trusted Artiles and agreed to do it.

However, Scales told investigators he was nervous about giving money to Rodriguez, who he had known for a long time and knew had a history of struggling financially.

“I’ve lent Alex money in the past, it’s hard to get it back from him,” Scales said in a sworn statement to investigators in March. “I told him [Artiles], I go, you better be careful if you’re dealing with Alex Rodriguez because he doesn’t like to give your money back.”

Records released Friday show that prosecutors subpoenaed the bank records of Scales from First Horizon Bank in Palmetto Bay between Jan. 1 and Dec. 15, 2020, as well as records of cash withdrawals on Nov. 13, 2020. On Nov. 19, according to the documents, Scales deposited a check for $15,945 from Key Scales Ford of Leesburg and received $9,000 in cash back.

Clarification: This story was updated after it was originally published to clarify Luis Rodriguez’s involvement in the investigation.