Bank records shed light on dark-money group in Florida ‘ghost’ candidate scandal

Though heavily redacted, the records for the nonprofit Let’s Preserve the American Dream give a glimpse into how money moves.
Bank records revealed as part of a case provide a glimpse into how money related to the 2020 elections flowed through a dark-money nonprofit.
Bank records revealed as part of a case provide a glimpse into how money related to the 2020 elections flowed through a dark-money nonprofit. [ ARIELLE BADER | Special to the Times ]
Published April 18, 2022

ORLANDO — Hundreds of thousands of dollars a month moved through a dark-money nonprofit key to Florida’s “ghost” candidate scandal in the nine months before the 2020 elections, passing between operatives and entities involved in races across the state, according to newly released documents.

Bank records for Let’s Preserve the American Dream Inc. — which has close ties to big-business lobbying firm Associated Industries of Florida — emerged last week from a Miami criminal case, after the group’s leader, former Associated Industries of Florida vice president Ryan Tyson, resisted their disclosure.

Though heavily redacted, the records reveal a rare glimpse into the day-to-day operations of a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, which are favored by political operatives for their opacity: They don’t have to reveal their donors and only limited information about how their money is spent.

Let’s Preserve the American Dream’s bank records were obtained via subpoena by Miami prosecutors in the case against Frank Artiles, an ex-lawmaker charged with bribing his friend, Alex Rodriguez, to run for state Senate in 2020.

Related: Ex-Florida senator Artiles paid no-party candidate more than $40k, arrest warrant charges

The records show large sums of money changing hands between key figures in the ghost candidate scandal.

For example, Let’s Preserve the American Dream sent $30,000 to TMP Interactive, a firm run by Jeff Pitts, then the CEO of Matrix LLC. That Alabama-based political consulting firm in 2020 counted among its clients Florida Power & Light, among other major Florida businesses and Associated Industries contributors.

The payment to Pitts’ firm was dated Sept. 22, 2020. A week later, Let’s Preserve the American Dream sent $600,000 to a nonprofit controlled by Pitts and his colleagues at Matrix LLC: “Grow United.” That group days later sent $550,000 to a pair of political committees run by Tallahassee-based operative Alex Alvarado — who was working for Tyson at the time.

Alvarado’s committees, which like Let’s Preserve the American Dream were based at Associated Industries of Florida’s headquarters blocks from the Florida governor’s mansion, spent the money promoting Rodriguez and two other low-profile independent candidates in crucial Senate races.

Prosecutors say that was part of a vote-siphoning scheme. The ads Alvarado’s committees paid for were crafted to appeal to left-leaning voters and each of the independent candidates, despite not having campaigned, drew thousands of votes, including in Central Florida’s Senate District 9.

When Tyson was interviewed by prosecutors in the Artiles case, he said he sent the money to Grow United with the expectation it would be used to support “center left” political causes but without any specific instructions.

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

“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?” asked Tim VanderGiesen, a public corruption prosecutor for the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office.

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

Less than three months after VanderGiesen interviewed Tyson, he informed Let’s Preserve the American Dream in a letter that the nonprofit was under investigation for “possible violations of Florida elections laws and campaign finance laws.” Alvarado also was sent a similar letter, among other players in the scandal.

Tyson declined to answer questions from the Orlando Sentinel about the payments reported in bank records.

“The Orlando Sentinel continues reporting on its preferred narrative, hoping that its political-justice-warrior sensationalism can stem its declining subscriptions — regardless of the harm done to LPAD,” Tyson wrote in an email.

A spokesperson for Pitts did not respond to questions about the purpose of the $30,000 payment to TMP Interactive.

Also revealed in the bank records: On July 27, 2020, Let’s Preserve the American Dream sent $100,000 to Florida Consumer Awareness Fund, a nonprofit chaired by Stafford Jones, a Gainesville-based political operative for Data Targeting, the firm that ran Florida Senate campaigns throughout the state for the GOP in 2020.

It’s unclear what that money was for. But about a month earlier, a different Jones-run group, Economic Improvement Fund, had sent that same amount to an entity controlled by Artiles, who at the time was being paid $15,000 a month by Data Targeting to work on South Florida Senate races.

Jones did not respond to an email asking what the Let’s Preserve the American Dream funds were used for or why Economic Improvement Fund sent money to Artiles.

The bank records, obtained by the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office during its investigation into Artiles, typically would become public, as state law requires when prosecutors provide evidence to a defendant’s attorneys during a criminal case.

But attorneys representing Let’s Preserve the American Dream argued that releasing the names of donors would hinder the organization’s work. Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Ariana Fajardo Orshan, who is overseeing the case against Artiles, agreed to release a redacted version of the records, describing the group’s donors as a “who’s who of names, prominent names in our community.”

The records shed light on which entities and individuals received money from Let’s Preserve the American Dream during the 2020 campaign season and since. Other transactions revealed in the records include:

  • Three expenditures between April and July of 2020 totaling $922,500 to A Better Miami-Dade Inc., another dark-money nonprofit with extensive ties to Associated Industries of Florida that was a major funder of Grow United that year. The nonprofit’s beneficiaries were active across the state in 2020, helping fund everything from a campaign to make it harder to amend the state constitution to attack ads against then-Orange County Property Appraiser Rick Singh.
  • A $26,000 payment on July 9, 2020, to Broken Promises, a dark money group that was involved in a 2018 state Senate race in Gainesville that featured similar tactics to the “ghost” candidate races. The payment came days before Broken Promises sent $20,000 to a super PAC called Concerned Conservatives, which was supporting a candidate in a Republican Congressional primary in southwest Florida. Let’s Preserve the American Dream also contributed $25,000 to that group in August 2020.
  • Let’s Preserve the American Dream sent more than $850,000 to Game Day Strategies LLC in a trio of transactions in March and April 2021. According to a deposition in the Artiles case, that entity is a subsidiary of Canopy Partners, a firm run by Pitts, his former Matrix LLC colleague Abigail MacIver and longtime Democratic fundraiser Dan Newman, who has also been notified by Artiles prosecutors that he’s under investigation. Game Day Strategies promoted a constitutional amendment drive seeking to bring a casino to Jacksonville, an effort that has been mired in allegations of possibly faked signatures.

The payments to Game Day Stategies came after Let’s Preserve the American Dream received a major infusion of cash following the 2020 elections; its bank account reported two credits totaling just more than $5 million that December, though the source of those funds was unclear.

Though Let’s Preserve the American Dream, Alvarado, Newman and Richard Alexander, the chairman of Grow United, were sent letters informing them they were under investigation, only Artiles and Rodriguez, the friend he’s accused of bribing to run for office, have been charged in the case.

Artiles has pleaded not guilty. Rodriguez pleaded guilty and is expected to testify against Artiles.