Records: Tallahassee strategist helped boost ghost candidates with dark money ad buy

No charges have been brought against Ryan Tyson or his organization.
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 Jan. 19, 2022

MIAMI — A longtime political strategist paid for more than half a million dollars in misleading mailers promoting no-party candidates in three key state Senate races in 2020, according to court records released by the Miami-Dade County State Attorney’s office Tuesday as part of a public corruption probe.

The records show that Ryan Tyson’s “Let’s Preserve the American Dream” wired $600,000 to “Grow United Inc” on Sept. 29, 2020. Days later on Oct. 2, Grow United sent $550,000 to two political committees that paid for the misleading mailers — The Truth and Our Florida — which were set up by Tallahassee consultant Alex Alvarado.

Investigators say the ads were meant to confuse voters to benefit the Republican candidates in the races, including two in Miami-Dade and one in Central Florida. The mailers featured messaging on issues that historically appeal to Democrats and promoted no-party candidates who had not actively campaigned. The ads urge voters to “cut the strings” from party-backed candidates.

The candidates in the three races — Senate Districts 37 and 39 in Miami and Senate District 9 in Seminole County — did not campaign themselves and were only advertised to voters via the mailers. All three races were won by Republicans.

Ryan Smith, a GOP consultant who owns Tallahassee firm ‘96 Consulting, Alvarado, the stepson of the printer who brokered the mail-piece project, and Tyson all received a cut of the $550,000 payment.

Up until 2019, Tyson served as vice president of pro-business lobbying group Associated Industries of Florida, which has denied being involved in the committees.

Prosecutors have zeroed in on Tyson and Alvarado as well as Dan Newman, a prominent Democratic fundraiser, and Richard Alexander, the chairperson of the dark money group Grow United. On Dec. 23, 2021, each was sent what is known by prosecutors as a “prior to” letter, which generally precedes criminal charges in a case. As of Tuesday, no charges have been filed.

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

It is not illegal to mislead voters or pay for misleading mail advertisements.

Records released as part of pre-trial discovery in the case of former Republican state Sen. Frank Artiles, who is facing several charges related to the no-party candidate who ran in District 37, were received by the Miami Herald on Tuesday.

Court records show that Tyson, the executive director of Let’s Preserve the American Dream, told investigators that in his role as director, it was his idea to send the money to Grow United for the purpose of helping “left of center” candidates. He said he was originally approached by Jeff Pitts, a consultant who controlled Grow United and now runs a Tallahassee-based firm called Canopy Partners LLC.

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

Miami-Dade County Assistant State Attorney Tim VanderGiesen asked Tyson during a Sept. 30 interview: “Did you know when this $600,000 was sent to Grow United, that $550,000 of it was going to go to Alex Alvarado’s two political committees?”

“I had a hunch they’d help them,” Tyson responded.

During the interview, Tyson also told VanderGiesen that Let’s Preserve the American Dream had reimbursed Alvarado for legal fees since the public corruption investigation began.

”I don’t think a single donor that has ever contributed to Let’s Preserve the American Dream would ever believe that Alex Alvarado was committing a crime,” Tyson said.

An ongoing criminal investigation

The candidate in Senate District 37, who shares a surname with the Democrat incumbent and received more than 6,000 votes in an election decided by 32, was arrested on four felony campaign finance charges last year. Auto-parts dealer Alexis Pedro Rodriguez later took a plea deal in exchange for helping prosecutors build a case against his acquaintance, Artiles. Investigators say Artiles paid Rodriguez $40,000 to run as a no-party candidate to sway the outcome of the election.

Both men were charged with conspiracy to make or accept campaign contributions in excess of legal limits, accepting and making those excess campaign contributions, false swearing in connection to an election and aiding in (and eventually, submitting) false voter information. Under state law, each of those charges carry sentences of up to five years in prison if convicted.

Let’s Preserve the American Dream paid Artiles’ Atlas Consultants more than $125,000 for “South Florida research services” dating back to 2017. The last payment to Artiles’ firm was Nov. 15, 2020, three days after the Democrat incumbent in Senate District 37 lost in a manual recount.

Tyson seeks to block records

Tyson’s lawyers have asked a Miami circuit court judge to block the release of bank records that would disclose its donors, arguing that the release of such information would violate donors’ constitutional rights and could “chill speech across the political spectrum.”

Related: Dark-money group asks judge to block bank records that would reveal donors

Records released Tuesday also show that Tyson’s lawyers emailed Hancock Whitney bank, asking that it review responsive documents before they are produced to the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office.

His lawyers have argued that releasing bank records that would show donations and contributions from Let’s Preserve the American Dream, from February 2020 to August 2021, are “irrelevant” to Artiles’ case.

No charges have been brought against Tyson or his dark money organization, and neither have been accused of wrongdoing, his lawyers said. They also said that Tyson voluntarily appeared for an interview with prosecutors to “demonstrate that LPAD complies with all state, federal and local laws.”

Unlike political committees, which are legally required to disclose their donors, dark money groups are not required by law to do so, which makes them useful for funders who don’t want their identities revealed when backing certain campaigns or causes.