Prominent Florida political consultants may face criminal charges in sham candidate case

A court document notes several operatives have received ‘prior to’ letters, which are usually sent to targets of an investigation.
Authorities take pictures of former state Sen. Frank Artiles' car as they raid his home in Palmetto Bay on Wednesday, March 17, 2021.
Authorities take pictures of former state Sen. Frank Artiles' car as they raid his home in Palmetto Bay on Wednesday, March 17, 2021.
Published Jan. 5, 2022

MIAMI — Prosecutors appear to be targeting prominent Republican and Democratic operatives in Florida for potential criminal charges stemming from a 2020 Miami-Dade election scheme marked by sham candidates, court records reveal.

Those targets: Alex Alvarado, a Republican consultant; Dan Newman, a prominent Democratic fundraiser; Richard Alexander, the chairman of the dark-money group Grow United; and Let’s Preserve the American Dream, a Tallahassee-based nonprofit run by Ryan Tyson, a top GOP pollster in Florida.

Each has been sent what is known by prosecutors as a “prior to” letter, which generally precedes criminal charges in a case. The existence of the letters were included in a document filed in circuit court late last month by the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office.

Usually, these letters are sent to the targets of a state or federal investigation to notify them that they could face criminal charges in the future or to give them a chance to present their side of the story, legal experts say.

The document also confirmed the existence of statements from Tyson and prominent GOP research firm Data Targeting Inc.’s chief financial officer, Lance Gardner, as well as bank records from Let’s Preserve the American Dream.

“It is not a good sign for anybody to get a ‘prior to’ letter,’’ said Alex Fox, a Miami criminal defense attorney and former state prosecutor. “The threat of an indictment, as signaled through a target letter or ‘prior to letter’ can be strong leverage for the government to convince targets to cooperate and hopefully, lessen their own exposure.”

State Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Miami Democrat and former prosecutor, said from his understanding, the letters mean recipients “are given the opportunity to voluntarily appear and speak with prosecutors.”

For now, the State Attorney’s office has declined to release the letters themselves, which are classified as evidence in the ongoing criminal investigation of Frank Artiles, a Republican operative and former Miami state senator, who is charged along with a no-party candidate, with allegedly trying to sway the outcome of a 2020 state Senate election in favor of the Republican candidate.

A State Attorney’s spokesperson declined to discuss the ongoing probe or potential charges against Alvarado, Alexander, Newman and Let’s Preserve the American Dream.

Artiles’ trial date has been set for February.

The case against Artiles

The criminal case is focused on whether Artiles recruited and paid an auto-parts dealer who shared the same surname as the Democratic incumbent more than $40,000 to run as a no-party candidate in the race for Senate District 37 to “confuse voters and influence the outcome” of the 2020 election, according to his arrest affidavit.

Related: Former Florida Sen. Artiles paid no-party candidate more than $40K, arrest warrant charges

Republican state Sen. Ileana Garcia won the election by 32 votes. The no-party candidate, Alexis “Alex” Rodriguez, who did not campaign, received more than 6,000 votes. Rodriguez has pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.

Get insights into Florida politics

Get insights into Florida politics

Subscribe to our free Buzz newsletter

We’ll send you a rundown on local, state and national politics coverage every Thursday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

Evidence in the case shows that in addition to Artiles, Miami investigators also are focused on finding the source of more than half a million dollars spent on misleading political mail advertisements that promoted the candidacy of Rodriguez by portraying him as a progressive candidate to appeal to likely Democrat voters.

That’s where Alvarado, Alexander, Newman and Let’s Preserve the American Dream appear to have become part of the investigation.

Alvarado set up two political committees, The Truth and Our Florida, that paid for the political mail advertisements. The mailers were paid with $550,000 that was funneled through the dark-money group Grow United, a tax-exempt Delaware corporation chaired by Alexander.

Evidence in the case shows that Alvarado paid two young women with no political experience to chair the political committees. He told the Miami Herald in April 2021 that no one hired him to execute the efforts.

Instead, he characterized it as a “business venture.” That entailed his stepfather, Luis Rodriguez, who operates Advance Impressions LLC, printing the misleading mail advertisements, which talked up Rodriguez as a candidate with progressive ideals.

Alvarado’s stepfather is among those who have been interviewed as part of the investigation, records show. Alvarado’s attorney, Daniel Forman, declined to comment.

In a sworn statement with a witness in December 2020, Tim VanderGiesen, the chief of the State Attorney’s public corruption unit, identified Alvarado as a “possible subject” of the criminal investigation. No charges have been filed against Alvarado.

Grow United and Let’s Preserve the American Dream

Alexander, 41, lives in Cullman, Ala., and in addition to chairing Grow United, he has been tied to groups that were created to promote the agenda of Florida’s powerful sugar and electric utilities industries, according to the Orlando Sentinel. He also was behind the primary backer of a group created in 2019 to campaign against the so-called “energy choice” petition drive. Alexander could not be reached for comment.

Let’s Preserve the American Dream is a Tallahassee-based group that is run by Tyson, one of Florida’s most prominent Republican strategists and pollsters.

Records show Tyson’s group paid Artiles’ Atlas Consultants firm more than $125,000 for “South Florida research services” dating to 2017, just a few months after Artiles resigned from the state Legislature for using a racial slur in front of Black colleagues.

The last payment to Artiles’ firm from Let’s Preserve the American Dream was Nov. 15, 2020, three days after the Democrat incumbent in Senate District 37 lost in a manual recount.

In a statement, Tyson said his group terminated its relationship with Artiles after his arrest in March 2021, and that neither he nor his group “had any knowledge of the allegations now being made against Senator Artiles.”

“Let’s Preserve the American Dream has and continues to comply with all federal, state, and local requirements. The State Attorney has not said otherwise in its wide-ranging investigation into the alleged actions of former Senator Artiles where LPAD complied voluntarily with the State Attorney’s requests,” he wrote.

Evidence in the case has also revealed that Democrats used Grow United to move money during 2020 campaigning.

In the weeks leading up to the election, Newman advised the head of a progressive advocacy group to give $115,000 to Grow United with the promise that the money would go to support Democratic candidates, according to a deposition in November 2021.

Newman told the Miami Herald late last year that he did not know Grow United was helping a Republican-led effort.

“In hindsight, it is clear that the money was being used at cross-purposes,” Newman said in a November 2021 interview.

In a statement, Newman said he is cooperating with Miami investigators in the case and that he is “ready and willing to speak with them as they complete their review.”

“I am confident that the work I’ve done is all legal and above board. I welcome the opportunity to meet with them in the near future so that they can see and hear that my fundraising and political efforts have always complied with federal and state law,” Newman said.

Newman’s roles for FPL, House Democrats

In December 2021, the Orlando Sentinel reported that Newman, a former lobbyist at a firm that during his tenure represented Florida Power & Light, received a $1.25 million check in September 2020 from the utility company to his consulting firm, which he shared with consultants tied to the election scheme.

While Newman has acknowledged he has raised money into Grow United, he declined to tell the Sentinel at the time why FPL paid his company $1.25 million or whether that money was subsequently passed on to Grow United.

In a statement provided to the Herald on Tuesday, Newman said his contract with FPL “had no tie to any candidate, campaign or political contributions.”

“I was on contract to advise them [FPL] on non-candidate projects on research and advocacy related to the impacts of complex ballot measures and other key public policy issues,” Newman said in a statement.

A few days after the Orlando Sentinel’s report, Newman resigned as an adviser to the Florida House Democrats’ campaign arm, a post he held on and off since 2013.

A spokesperson for the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office wrote in an email that the letters are part of the “discovery,” or evidence in the case, which “will not be public record until after this time,” referencing a 15-day window for Artiles’ lawyers to file a motion for a protective order.