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Florida Democrats also used dark money group that paid for sham candidate mailers

The transaction reveals how both parties use organizations that shield donors who may have concerns over the implications of their political donations.
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 Nov. 19
Updated Nov. 19

TALLAHASSEE — In the weeks leading up to the 2020 election, the head of a progressive advocacy group had $115,000 on hand and wanted to use it to support Senate Democratic candidates as they tried to make gains in the Republican-dominated chamber.

Josh Weierbach, the executive director of the nonprofit Florida Watch Inc., took the advice of a longtime Democratic fundraiser and gave the money to a dark-money nonprofit, Grow United. He did it with the understanding that it would be used to help flip one state Senate seat in Central Florida and defend one in Miami-Dade, according to records that are part of an investigation into an alleged scheme to influence a 2020 election in Miami-Dade County.

In the end, Weierbach funneled money through a group that was also being used by Republicans to support a half-million dollar effort designed to hurt the very same candidates progressives wanted to support.

The Republican cause involved tens of thousands of mailers being sent to voters in three key Senate races in an attempt to siphon votes from Democratic candidates, including the two that Weierbach wanted to support — Patricia Sigman in Senate District 9 and Javier Fernandez in Senate District 39.

“It’s excruciatingly clear that Florida’s campaign finance system is awful,” Sigman wrote in a text message Thursday. “It needs a complete overhaul … voters really do deserve to know who’s influencing their elections.”

The behind-the-scenes cash transfer at the tail-end of the 2020 election cycle underscores how top Democratic players in Florida didn’t vet the dealings of a dark-money group that played a central role in a political scandal that has long been tied to Republican operatives.

The transaction also reveals how both parties use dark-money groups that shield donors who may have concerns over the implications of their political donations, as a means to get money to their candidates.

“In hindsight, it is clear that the money was being used at cross-purposes. But for what I needed, I needed to get money into the state party and that happened,” Dan Newman, the fundraiser who advised Weierbach on donating to Grow United, told the Miami Herald in an interview Thursday.

Weierbach said that as his organization began to approach its limit on the amount it can spend on political advocacy, Newman suggested he give money to Grow United, a group that is not required to disclose its money sources.

The Herald obtained transcripts of new statements in the Artiles case Wednesday. They were entered into the court record earlier in November.

“I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but Grow United ended up being used to fund some organizations that ran against Democratic candidates,” prosecutor Tim Vandergiesen asked Weierbach in an interview that is part of an ongoing investigation into the origins of the money that funded the misleading mail pieces. “But your trust was based solely on what Dan Newman was saying?”

“Yes,” Weierbach responded.

When asked if he knew Grow United was also helping the Republican effort, Newman said: “Absolutely not.”

He said he learned about it after the election was over.

Grow United tied to public corruption investigation

The inquiry into dark money is part of a two-pronged state investigation into former Miami-Dade Republican state Sen. Frank Artiles and a no-party candidate he recruited to run in Senate District 37, where voters received the mailers.

Weierbach told investigators that the $115,000 was meant to help Fernandez and Sigman because he believed Senate District 37 incumbent Jose Javier Rodriguez “was safe at the time.”

“We have limited resources as Democrats in the state,” he said. “(Fernandez and Sigman) were the races that we thought needed the money at the time.”

Fernandez and Sigman both lost their races. Miami Republican Ileana Garcia, a first-time candidate, beat Rodriguez after a three-day recount by just 32 votes out of more than 215,000 cast. Alexis Rodriguez, Artiles’ longtime acquaintance who shares a surname with the incumbent, received 6,382 votes as a no-party candidate in the election. The mailers paid for by the dark money from Grow United backed Alexis Rodriguez as a progressive candidate.

Investigators allege Artiles paid Alexis Pedro Rodriguez nearly $45,000 with the understanding that he would change his party affiliation from Republican to no-party to qualify as a candidate in the race. Both men turned themselves in to authorities in March and pleaded not guilty, though Rodriguez is now cooperating with investigators as part of a plea deal.

Grow United, whose address is a post office box in Denver and is registered in Delaware, is a focus in the Miami-Dade state attorney’s monthslong investigation into the alleged GOP-led vote-siphoning scheme in Senate District 37.

Other than Florida Watch Inc., a “social welfare organization” that is not required to disclose its donors, Newman told the Herald he does not know and has not asked what other groups have given money to Grow United.

Newman said Grow United was suggested to him by Jeff Pitts, an Alabama-based public affairs consultant with Canopy Partners, after Newman told him he wanted to find an organization “willing to support some Democratic Party projects.”

Giving money to both parties

Campaign finance records show that Grow United did serve as a vehicle to funnel funds to support Senate Democrats. Grow United contributed $360,000 to the Florida Democratic Campaign Committee, which is the political committee for Senate Democrats, between Oct. 15 and Oct. 22 in 2020.

Anders Croy, a spokesman for Florida Watch, declined to comment on the contribution.

Weierbach, however, told investigators that he didn’t know how Grow United spent their money, and trusted Newman that the organization was aligned with Florida Watch’s goals of “supporting state Democratic candidates.”

“The money we raised didn’t go to any Republican projects. Some other donors raised other money into Grow United that funded those,” Newman said. “So there was no progressive money, from my perspective, for anything that was against Democrats.”

On Oct. 3, 2020, Grow United directed $550,000 to political committees that paid for mailers promoting sham no-party candidates, campaign records show. The political committees funded by Grow United were both run by a Republican political operative Alex Alvarado, according to records state investigators released earlier this year.

Newman advocates for progressive interests, Weierbach said, so he trusted the money would go toward his cause.

Board members for Florida Watch, including former lawmakers and statewide officeholders, don’t weigh in on decisions like political contributions. The board simply trusts Weierbach to carry out the financial goals, and he reports back to them, he told investigators.

He never checked to see where the money from Grow United went, Weierbach said, figuring that he “probably would have heard from my donors that they were unhappy.”

Fernandez, a former state representative and Democratic Senate candidate who was supposed to be a beneficiary of the Florida Watch money, told the Miami Herald that he remembers seeing sponsored ads from Florida Watch but didn’t receive a contribution from Grow United.

He said the mix-up was a result of a “last-minute but well-intended spend to push a candidate forward.”

“But unfortunately, none of the due diligence was done,” he said.