Judge grants secrecy for some messages gathered in Florida’s ‘ghost’ candidate probe

Many communications between former Florida state Sen. Frank Artiles and others will not be released publicly, a South Florida judge ruled.
Frank Artiles leaves the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center in Miami on March 18, 2021.
Frank Artiles leaves the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center in Miami on March 18, 2021.
Published April 29, 2022

ORLANDO — Communications between former Florida state Sen. Frank Artiles and roughly two dozen individuals and organizations, which were obtained by Miami prosecutors investigating an alleged vote-siphoning scheme in 2020′s state Senate races, will not be released publicly, a South Florida judge ruled Thursday.

Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Ariana Fajardo Orshan is also considering withholding from public disclosure a list of Artiles’ contacts that also was seized by prosecutors. Fajardo Orshan said she expected to issue a ruling on that matter within a week, weighing the privacy rights of Artiles’ personal and business contacts with the rights of reporters and others to have access to the records.

The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office has obtained a voluminous cache of records, including messages and contact names, from Artiles’ personal laptops, phones, tablets and other devices. Those records, which have been provided to Artiles’ defense attorneys, would typically become public, as state law requires in a criminal case.

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

But at the urging of Artiles’ attorneys, Fajardo Orshan agreed to allow people whose names, messages and other records were stored on the former state senator’s devices to object to having those records publicly released, and roughly two dozen individuals and entities did.

In exempting from public disclosure the messages from those parties, Fajardo Orshan said they are “personal in nature” and not related to the case. Prosecutor Tim VanderGiesen said he doesn’t anticipate using any of those records in the state’s case against Artiles, who is scheduled to go to trial in September.

The exception: Communications between Artiles and his friend Alex Rodriguez, who pleaded guilty in August to taking bribes from Artiles to run in a competitive South Florida state Senate race, will be made available to the public.

Rodriguez did no campaigning but was championed as a progressive alternative to the major party candidates in an advertising blitz that prosecutors say was intended to siphon votes away from Democrat Jose Javier Rodríguez, who eventually lost to Republican Ileana Garcia by 32 votes.

Alex Rodriguez, who received more than 6,000 votes in the Miami-area race, agreed to testify in the state’s case against Artiles.

Attorneys representing some of Artiles’ unnamed contacts said during Thursday’s hearing they feared publicizing their clients’ connections to Artiles might imply that they were somehow involved in the ghost candidate scheme or other wrongdoing.

But attorneys representing the Orlando Sentinel and other news organizations have argued that Artiles’ contacts’ potential embarrassment or fear of unflattering news coverage is not sufficient reason to shield public records from disclosure.

“The fact that someone associates with Mr. Artiles is not a secret, not a thing to be protected,” said Dana McElroy, who is representing the Miami Herald and other outlets.

Artiles, who resigned from the state Senate in 2017 after a racist tirade against Black colleagues in a Tallahassee bar, now runs a political consulting business and has other ventures.

Fajarado Orshan, who reviewed the records in order to make her ruling, said they showed the former lawmaker is “a go-getter” who “works hard,” and that ambition is reflected in the breadth of his contacts list and communications.

“I hate to use the word hustler, but he’s out there, he’s providing for his family,” Fajardo Orshan said.

The South Florida race in which Artiles is accused of paying nearly $45,000 to Alex Rodriguez to run was one of three key state Senate races in 2020 — including one in Central Florida won by Republican Sen. Jason Brodeur of Sanford — in which candidates filed to run as independents but did no campaigning.

Two political committees that received all of their funding from a dark money nonprofit called “Grow United” sent ads promoting the independent candidates, portraying them as progressives in an apparent attempt to undermine the Democrats in those races.

Another nonprofit organization called Let’s Preserve the American Dream Inc. that has close ties to big-business lobbying group Associated Industries of Florida gave $600,000 to Grow United that was used to pay for the ads.

Related: Bank records shed light on dark money group in Florida ghost candidate scandal

Earlier this month, Fajarado Orshan agreed to publicly release redacted bank records for Let’s Preserve the American Dream after the group’s leader resisted their disclosure. The records show large sums of money changing hands between key figures in the ghost candidate scandal in fall 2020, weeks before the election.

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.

A spokesperson for Pitts did not respond earlier this month to questions about the purpose of the payment to TMP Interactive.

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

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 Alex Rodriguez and two other low-profile independent candidates in crucial Senate races.

Late last year, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office sent “prior to” letters to Alvarado, Let’s Preserve the American Dream, Grow United Chairman Richard Alexander and Dan Newman, a former Democratic fundraiser who raised money into Grow United and who now works with Pitts and other ex-Matrix operatives at a Florida-based firm, Canopy Partners.

Those letters notified the recipients they also were targets of the state’s investigation. No one except Artiles and Alex Rodriguez have been charged in the scheme.