Long before Frank Artiles, a Miami legislator turned lobbyist, became the focus of a public corruption investigation, he got a call from one of Florida’s most influential Republican consultants on a Monday afternoon in May 2020.
The conversation lasted five minutes.
Three weeks later, on June 9, they jumped on the phone two more times. By the end of the day, Pat Bainter, who runs the prominent GOP research firm Data Targeting Inc., and Artiles, who owns Miami firm Atlas Consultants, had a deal.
Bainter, whose firm has had a hand in advising and promoting Florida Senate candidates for decades, would pay Artiles $90,000 over six months to work on “state legislative campaign assignments … to include certain Senate Districts in Miami-Dade County,” according to records released in the last week by the Miami-Dade’s State Attorney’s office. The contract did not detail the exact duties.
A day after the contract was signed, documents show, Artiles started helping Alexis Pedro Rodriguez, an old friend who Artiles recruited to run as an independent in Miami-Dade’s Senate District 37 race. The former lawmaker walked Rodriguez through signing all the necessary campaign documents to qualify for the 2020 ballot, according to investigators. Artiles eventually paid Rodriguez roughly $45,000 in exchange for his candidacy, investigators say.
Bainter’s May call with Artiles was 10 days after Rodriguez was recruited, records show.
Now Artiles and Rodriguez are facing criminal charges, and Bainter’s business dealings with Artiles are being probed in the state’s investigation into Rodriguez’s candidacy — a run for office that included no campaigning by Rodriguez but still helped sway the results of the Senate District 37 election.
Six key days in June
The business contract appears to have set off a chain of events between June 9 and June 14 that may include key details, including the timeline during which investigators say Artiles gave Rodriguez $2,000 in cash to open a campaign account and flew to Tallahassee to deliver campaign documents with knowingly false and inaccurate information.
- June 9: Artiles signs a six-month contract with Data Targeting that includes a clause prohibiting Artiles from performing “any other political related services without the express written consent” of Data Targeting.
- June 10: Rodriguez and Artiles meet at Artiles’ Palmetto Bay house just before noon, where Rodriguez fills out and signs his candidate forms. Later that day, Rodriguez and criminal defense attorney Alejandro De Varona meet in the parking lot of Sergio’s Restaurant in Doral, where De Varona notarizes Rodriguez’s campaign documents. The documents listed Rodriguez’s former address in Palmetto Bay, not an address in Boca Raton where he was renting a house at the time. The Palmetto Bay address is in District 37, but the Boca Raton address is not.
- June 11: Artiles calls Bainter in the morning, and Rodriguez’s qualifying check is signed.
On the same day, records show, Artiles gives Rodriguez $2,000 to open a campaign account at a City National Bank location in Miami. Artiles then tells Rodriguez he needs to fly to Tallahassee to file the paperwork with the Division of Elections, according to court records. Artiles takes an American Airlines flight and charges Bainter for it, records show.
- June 12: Candidate qualifying checks for Rodriguez and Celso Alfonso, a no-party candidate in Senate District 39 who Artiles recruited for that race, are hand-delivered to the Department of State in Tallahassee before 9 a.m. Artiles calls Bainter at around 2:30 p.m.
- June 14: Artiles flies back to Miami International Airport on American Airlines.
- June 15: Data Targeting pays Artiles his first $15,000 monthly consulting fee.
- July 15: Artiles bills Data Targeting $4,000 for “research,” $508 for a June 11-14 American Airlines flight, $17 for Miami International Airport parking, and $200 for courier service delivery fees for two people.
Bainter did not respond to multiple requests seeking comment.
The Miami Herald first reported last month that Bainter’s firm was served a subpoena in the state’s case against Artiles, who is facing several felony charges for allegedly recruiting and paying Alexis Pedro Rodriguez, to run as a no-party candidate in Senate District 37. Rodriguez is facing similar charges. The subpoena asked Bainter for documents related to Artiles but not Rodriguez, who faces similar charges.
Rodriguez, who shares a surname with the incumbent Democrat, Senator José Javier Rodríguez, received more than 6,000 votes in a race decided by three dozen. Latina for Trump co-founder and television personality Ileana Garcia won the seat.
Data Targeting’s close ties to state Senate Republicans
New documents obtained by attorneys for the Miami Herald and other media companies and open government groups reveal that Data Targeting may be more central to the scheme than previously known, and that the money trail that ended with Rodriguez may have started with one of Data Targeting’s main clients: the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, a fundraising arm for Republican Senate campaigns.
In Florida Republican circles, Data Targeting is a top political consulting firm and has been for a long time. Although Bainter himself stays out of the spotlight, his firm has an outsized presence in GOP politics, being paid more than $47 million over the last three decades for polling, creating mailers and strategizing, according to campaign finance data.
Bainter, whose firm is based in Gainesville, has had a hand in hundreds of GOP campaigns up and down Florida and in other states, and he’s been a favorite of Florida Senate presidents.
Of the last nine Senate presidents, dating to 2004, at least six have paid for his services. His clients have also included U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz and Gov. Ron DeSantis.
During the 2020 election cycle, the firm was paid $7.2 million to serve as a general consultant to the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, a fundraising arm for Republican Senate campaigns led by Senate President Wilton Simpson.
The political committee, for instance, paid Data Targeting to do polling, research, consulting, political mail advertisements for a number of Senate Republicans’ campaigns, including Miami-Dade’s Senate District 37 and 39 races and Central Florida’s Senate District 9. Those three races were the most competitive races in the chamber during the 2020 election cycle.
As news unfolded on Artiles’ involvement in the Senate District 37 election earlier this year, Simpson denied knowing about the effort. Erin Isaac, a spokeswoman for the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee and Simpson, didn’t respond to multiple requests on Tuesday and Wednesday seeking comment on Data Targeting’s contract with Artiles and whether the political committee or Simpson knew about it.
Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, a Naples Republican who is next in line to lead the Senate and Republican campaigns in the chamber, was non-committal on Wednesday about revisiting Data Targeting’s relationship in light of the investigation. Passidomo is scheduled to take the reins of Senate Republican campaigns on Oct. 19.
“I think it is premature for me to even comment because I have not yet had those conversations with anyone because it is not really my place at this point,” Passidomo said. “I think we want to wait and see what happens, because anything else would be speculation. … It is not fair to the process to speculate on anything.”
Correspondence between Artiles and Bainter
What records reveal is that, throughout the summer, Artiles and Bainter mostly wrote emails using general business terms, swapping invoices and checking in on meetings.
In July, however, Artiles made a nod to the Senate race at the center of the public corruption case.
“FYI, Senator for 37 was seen with the Mayor valdes Fauli in Abrachi having lunch,” Artiles wrote about the incumbent, José Javier Rodríguez, and the former Coral Gables Mayor, Raúl Valdés-Fauli.
Caffe Abbracci, an upscale Italian restaurant on Coral Gables’ famous Miracle Mile, is a common power-lunch meeting place among politicos. Artiles held a re-election fundraiser at the restaurant in 2014.
In a Sept. 14 email, Artiles made it clear that he was following Bainter’s directions.
“Attached is the September invoice for your review and approval,” Artiles wrote. “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, though it is unclear which ones Artiles was referencing.
Committees controlled by William Stafford Jones, a former chairman of the Alachua County Republican Executive Committee who is listed on dozens of political committees, have paid Data Targeting at least $1.8 million in recent years.
In one of the email chains released by state prosecutors, Jones is looped in on a June 16 message with a PDF attachment labeled: “Wire Transfer Instructions.” On that day, records show Data Targeting arranged a wire transfer of $100,000 to a nonprofit called Florida Stronger Inc. The organization’s officers include De Varona, who notarized Rodriguez’s campaign paperwork, and Jose Riesco, who served as the no-party candidate’s campaign treasurer.
The documents also reveal Bainter and his firm’s involvement with two other Senatorial campaigns, which employed similar tactics to those in District 37 — misleading mailers funded by secretive groups and no-party candidates who did essentially no campaigning
Twice in July, the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee paid Bainter’s firm for research, consulting and mail in Senate Districts 9, 37 and 39. Between July and August, the committee paid Data Targeting more than $115,000 for work on just those three races.
On June 26, records show, Data Targeting Chief Financial Officer Lance Gardner confirmed with Bainter that $100,000 had been transferred to an unregistered group, Economic Improvement Fund, which was responsible for mailers that falsely accused Senate District 9 candidate Democrat Patricia Sigman of taking PPP money.
The next status update in Artiles’ and Rodriguez’s cases is August 19. The trial is scheduled for August 30.
Tampa Bay Times reporter Lawrence Mower contributed to this report.