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Top Florida GOP operatives paid by dark money group under investigation

Ryan Smith, a GOP consultant; Ryan Tyson, a Republican pollster, and Alex Alvarado, a strategist, all received a cut from a $550,000 mail buy for three state Senate races for sham candidates meant to confuse voters.
Voters in Senate District 37 received dark money-funded mailers that featured little-known, no-party candidate Alex Rodriguez. The mailers aimed to “confuse” voters.
Voters in Senate District 37 received dark money-funded mailers that featured little-known, no-party candidate Alex Rodriguez. The mailers aimed to “confuse” voters. [ Times/Herald ]
Published Aug. 31

TALLAHASSEE — Three prominent Republican operatives got a cut from a more than half-a-million dollar payment meant for “mail,” which was paid for by a dark money group that is part of an investigation into a vote-siphoning scheme during the 2020 election, records show.

Ryan Smith, a GOP consultant who owns Tallahassee firm ‘96 Consulting; Ryan Tyson, a prominent Republican operative and pollster, and Alex Alvarado, a strategist and stepson of the printer who brokered the mail-piece project, all received a cut from $550,000 directed toward an Orlando printing company.

Luis Orlando Rodriguez, the owner of the company Advanced Impressions and Alvarado’s stepfather, told investigators that he coordinated the printing and mailing of over 500,000 political mail advertisements that were sent to voters in three key 2020 state Senate races — two in Miami-Dade County and one in Central Florida.

The details of the mail buy, which were disclosed for the first time in court records released Tuesday, underscore the influence of Republican big-hitters and how mail was used to attempt to sway the outcome of three key state Senate races in 2020. Republicans won all three races, and the victories solidified the GOP control of the Florida Legislature’s upper chamber.

None of the payments were delineated in expense reports of the two political committees — The Truth and Our Florida — that funneled the money to Rodriguez’s printing business. But in a deposition with investigators, Rodriguez broke down how he spent the $550,000 he was paid for “mail”:

▪ $99,600 to Smith for the art and the mailing list of half a million voters

▪ $220,000 to Arrowmail of Doral to print the political ads and send the mail, which cost $0.50 per postcard

▪ $65,211 to Alvarado’s company Alvarado Strategies for a “referral fee”

▪ $26,500 to Tyson’s company Preservation Association Management for a “referral fee.”

The money Rodriguez received from the political committees was backed by dark money group Grow United Inc., a tax-exempt corporation that is registered in Delaware and does not disclose its donors.

Rodriguez, who usually makes about $60,000 annual salary from his full-time employer, got the leftover $136,000 for what he deemed to be about five to eight days of work. He said he had not made that much money on a project in the two and half years since he started Advanced Impressions.

Smith, who paid former state Senator and Republican consultant Frank Artiles $10,000 in October 2020, did not respond to requests for comment.

Mailers were similar in three key races

The mailers were all similarly designed, promoted no-party candidates and used talking points that appeal to Democratic voters. The mail pieces sent to Central Florida voters had another layer of deception: They featured a stock photo of a Black woman, even though the no-party candidate in that race was white.

Artiles was arrested in March on four felony charges related to the Senate District 37 election, where a third of the mail ads were circulated. Artiles is accused of paying more than $40,000 to Alex Rodriguez, the no-party candidate in that race.

Artiles also guided another no-party candidate in Miami-Dade County, in Senate District 39. He has not been charged in connection to the recruitment of Celso Alfonso, whose wife told investigators that he was not paid to run.

Former Republican state senator Frank Artiles of Miami.
Former Republican state senator Frank Artiles of Miami.

Tyson and Alvarado declined to comment.

The ads brokered by Rodriguez’s company portrayed no-party candidates that did no independent campaigning as candidates with progressive ideals in an apparent attempt to divert some votes from the Democrats in those races.

One of those no-party candidates was Alexis Rodriguez, who ran in District 37 against Republican challenger Ileana Garcia and Democrat incumbent José Javier Rodríguez, with whom he shares a surname but the two are not related.

Alexis Rodriguez told investigators of Artiles’ role

Court records show Alexis Rodriguez told investigators that Artiles was clear about his plan from the moment he recruited him. Artiles knew Rodriguez didn’t live in the district, Alexis Rodriguez told investigators in a separate deposition, but remembered that Rodriguez once owned a house in Palmetto Bay, which he left in 2015. Rodriguez kept his old driver’s license, which he used to confirm his identity to Coral Gables attorney Alejandro De Varona, who notarized campaign documents.

Artiles’ firm later wrote a $7,000 check to Constantine Capitol, LLC, whose registered agent is listed as De Varona’s law offices.

“The initial conversation where he said, ‘Look, the Democratic candidate’s name is Rodriguez,’ and he spoke disparaginglyof the gentleman,” Rodriguez told investigators in December 2020. “I don’t remember what he said, but he said that this will help get our candidate.”

Garcia won the election by 32 votes after a hand recount. The no-party candidate received more than 6,000.

Alexis Rodriguez was arrested on the same day Artiles for charges related to a vote siphoning scheme in which he allegedly lied about his address on a sworn campaign document and was paid more than $40,000 by Artiles to run.

Alex Rodriguez, seen in a 2012 Miami-Dade County booking photo, pleaded guilty Tuesday to charges related to his involvement in a scheme to siphon votes from a Democratic candidate for the Florida Senate.
Alex Rodriguez, seen in a 2012 Miami-Dade County booking photo, pleaded guilty Tuesday to charges related to his involvement in a scheme to siphon votes from a Democratic candidate for the Florida Senate.

Rodriguez pleaded guilty to two counts of campaign finance violations in exchange for 36 months of probation, a year of house arrest and a promise to testify against Artiles in court.

Artiles, who pleaded not guilty, faces trial on four felony charges related to the scheme, each of which carry up to five years in prison.