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Intrigue grows in Florida’s ‘ghost’ candidate case as prosecutors seek more info

The probe is examining who paid for thousands of political mail advertisements to promote sham no-party candidates in three contested Florida races.
In this March 18, 2021, photo, former Sen. Frank Artiles leaves the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center in Miami. Artiles posted $5,000 bail after facing charges relating to a 2020 Senate District.
In this March 18, 2021, photo, former Sen. Frank Artiles leaves the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center in Miami. Artiles posted $5,000 bail after facing charges relating to a 2020 Senate District.
Published Jul. 30|Updated Aug. 1

TALLAHASSEE — Prosecutors subpoenaed records related to a $600,000 money transfer between dark money organizations tied to an ongoing Miami-Dade criminal case surrounding “ghost candidates” in the 2020 election, according to court records unveiled Friday.

The transfer is adding a new layer of intrigue to a years-long question into who paid for thousands of political mail advertisements to promote sham no-party candidates in three contested Florida races that were key to helping solidify the Republican majority in the state Senate.

While the source is not yet clear, the money transfer shows prosecutors have looked into a $600,000 transfer made on or around Sept. 30, 2020, from Foundation for a Safe Environment, a nonprofit organization controlled by prominent Republican operative Stafford Jones, to Let’s Preserve the American Dream, a nonprofit organization run by Ryan Tyson, a top GOP pollster in Florida.

During the course of the investigation, court records show that Tyson told investigators that he, too, had sent $600,000 on Sept. 29, 2020, to Grow United, a dark money organization that sent $550,000 to two political committees that paid for the mailers, which promoted as political progressives the no-party candidates in two Miami-Dade state Senate races and another in Central Florida.

Jones told the Herald on Saturday, after this story was originally published online, that the amount transferred by Foundation for a Safe Environment was $630,000, not $600,000 as the court document states. Jones said the money was a general contribution and not for any specific purpose.

Tyson told investigators his organization transferred the money to Grow United to help “left to center” candidates and that he “had a hunch” the money would later be transferred to the two political committees — The Truth and Our Florida — which were controlled by Tallahassee consultant Alex Alvarado.

Tyson, however, said he could not be sure what the money would be used for. He told investigators that “once he makes a contribution to an entity, he loses control of how they spend the money.”

A labyrinth of political committees, non-profits

Records released Friday — a summary of investigative activity related to the elections for Senate Districts 37 and 39 from Sept. 1 to Dec. 31, 2021 — did not offer much detail about the relationship Foundation for a Safe Environment has to the investigation. But Jones, who chairs the organization, controls a number of political committees associated with the prominent GOP research firm Data Targeting, according to court records. Data Targeting has long served as a chief firm advising Senate Republican campaigns, including during the 2020 election cycle.

Data Targeting also paid former Republican state Sen. Frank Artiles, who is facing several charges related to the no-party candidate who ran in District 37, for campaign-related work. Data Targeting paid Artiles $90,000 over six months to work on “state legislative campaign assignments ... to include certain Senate Districts in Miami-Dade County,” according to records released by the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office. The contract did not detail the exact duties.

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.

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In addition, records show that on April 20, prosecutors were seeking information from Brian Lacey, who worked with the Florida Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee until he was let go in December 2020 following “a bad cycle and losses in Florida Senate races.”

The DLCC also received money from Grow United. Lacey told investigators he recalled the contribution was made but that he did not have information beyond that and did not have access to those records because he was no employed by the committee.

Friday’s records are part of the discovery in the case against Artiles in Miami.

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 just 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 by siphoning votes away from the incumbent.

READ MORE: After 3-day recount, incumbent Democrat loses Senate seat to Ileana Garcia

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.

The case is scheduled for its next hearing on Sept. 1.

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