State investigating mysterious candidate who swayed tight Florida Senate race

Reporters found that the third party candidate who affected the outcome of the race was renting a home in Palm Beach County, not in Miami-Dade County, where he filed to vote and run for state office.
Boxes of ballots during manual recount for Senate District 37 between Republican Ileana Garcia and Democrat Jose Javier Rodriguez at Miami-Dade Elections Department on Thursday, November 12, 2020, in Miami, Florida.
Boxes of ballots during manual recount for Senate District 37 between Republican Ileana Garcia and Democrat Jose Javier Rodriguez at Miami-Dade Elections Department on Thursday, November 12, 2020, in Miami, Florida. [ DAVID SANTIAGO | Miami Herald ]
Published Nov. 18, 2020

MIAMI — The razor-thin victory that delivered Latinas for Trump co-founder Ileana Garcia to the Florida Senate and ousted Democrat José Javier Rodríguez continues to raise eyebrows for one reason: a mysterious third candidate named Alex Rodriguez.

Alex Rodriguez, a one-time mechanic with no history in local politics, didn’t start a campaign website, attended no candidate forums and received no donations, save for a $2,000 loan from himself. Mailers pitching his name sent to voters in the Coral Gables area were sent by a shadowy political group that, so far, has been untraceable.

When a television reporter recently tracked Alex Rodriguez down, he pretended to be someone else.

Alex Rodriguez’s candidacy appeared to exist for only one reason: to suck votes away from incumbent José Javier Rodríguez, who shares the same surname. The incumbent lost by just 34 votes, and he is now calling for an investigation into Alex Rodriguez — and whoever may have put him up to run.

The shadow candidate has drawn the attention of law enforcement. Sources with knowledge of the investigation tell the Miami Herald that Miami-Dade state prosecutors are now probing the mysterious candidacy, which has also led to a series of investigative reports from the Herald and other news outlets such as WPLG-10 and Univision, whose reporters found Rodriguez renting a home in Palm Beach County, not in Miami-Dade County where he filed to vote and run for state office.

In a video message shortly after conceding the race, the incumbent Democrat Rodríguez expressed alarm at the influence of the third candidate, who earned more than 6,300 votes.

Rodríguez was ousted after four years in office representing District 37, which encompasses Coral Gables, Key Biscayne, Palmetto Bay and Pinecrest.

“Democracy requires transparency,” Rodríguez said in the video. “In order to achieve that, I believe this election requires a full investigation so that those who may have violated the law are held to account and so that such tactics are not used in future elections.”

Ed Griffith, a spokesman for the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, declined to comment and would neither confirm nor deny any probe. Garcia has not responded to calls, emails or home visits by reporters.

How can this happen?

In Florida, candidates must sign an oath that lists their residency, but the oath doesn’t cite the penalties for lying, and no one actively checks to make sure candidates are qualified to run for a given office. The county supervisors of election don’t play a role in enforcing the rule, as their offices are “ministerial, not investigative,” a spokeswoman for the Miami-Dade County Elections Department said.

Complaints of possible fraud should instead be directed toward the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust or the Florida Election Commission.

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Senate Democratic Leader Gary Farmer, who observed the recount last week, told the Herald that Alex Rodriguez’s candidacy calls into question the state’s elections laws, which he says “don’t really have enough teeth in them.”

“Alex Rodriguez may have lied about his address, but that would not have been enough to knock him off the ballot in any event,” he said. “We really don’t discourage this type of activity in any way under our laws. It’s those types of things that create a distrust in the overall system.”

He added that regardless of the outcome of the investigation, the law still doesn’t provide for a new election

“A society that really cared about having fair elections would do more to discourage and punish this type of behavior,” he said.

Elections attorney Juan Carlos Planas plans on filing an ethics complaint against Alex Rodriguez, and said his financial disclosure form is “improper” and needs to be looked into. He said, however, that it is not surprising Rodriguez didn’t run into an issue qualifying for the ballot. As long as the check cashes from a proper campaign account, the candidate is 21 years or older and the candidate is a resident in the state of Florida, they can qualify.

The contested address and missing bank account on Alex Rodriguez’s financial disclosures are red flags for Planas, who questions the source of the candidate’s money.

“There are more questions than answers, but the questions don’t seem like they will lead to a good place,” said Planas, who represented José Javier Rodríguez’s campaign during the recount. “People like this don’t pop up and say they are going to run for state Senate.”

Not the first time

As part of their probe, Miami-Dade prosecutors could review several key sworn documents provided to state authorities by Alex Rodriguez, including a candidate oath form and a financial disclosure form.

The state attorney’s office may take interest in Rodriguez’s voter registration form, the latest filled out in Miami-Dade County on June 9, in which he listed an address on the 7700 block of Southwest 156th Street in Palmetto Bay. The couple that lives at the house now told WPLG-10′s Glenna Milberg that Rodriguez hadn’t lived there in five years. Univision Miami reported that Rodriguez has been living in a rented Boca Raton house in Palm Beach County.

Lying on the voter registration form is what led to the downfall of former Democratic State Rep. Daisy Baez, who falsely swore she lived at an address during a 2016 campaign. In 2017, she resigned from office and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor perjury charge brought by the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office.

Former Sen. Rodríguez blamed Senate Republican leaders for planting the third-party candidate in the race, saying “Tallahassee Republicans ran one unethical campaign with two candidates,” referring to Garcia and Alex Rodriguez.

Republicans deny involvement

Erin Isaac, a spokeswoman for the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee and Senate President Wilton Simpson, specifically said that the committee and Simpson were not involved in Alex Rodriguez’s campaign, candidacy or mailers.

Simpson denied involvement again Tuesday in Tallahassee while taking questions from reporters after the Senate’s organizational session.

“We had our candidates in the races, and it was pretty clear which ones we were supporting,” he said.

Rodriguez, 55, is not the only no-party candidate backed by dark money who ran in competitive state Senate races this year. Celso Alfonso is a no-party candidate who ran in Senate District 39, and whose candidacy shared similarities to Rodriguez. Both candidates' email addresses are Gmail accounts with identical patterns: first initial, last name, district number and “2020.” They also have identical campaign finance records, both only reporting $2,000 loans to themselves, and using the money to pay for the $1,187.88 filing fee required of no-party candidates for state Senate.

Both Rodriguez and Alfonso were registered Republicans when they voted in the 2018 midterm elections. Both qualified for the 2020 election the same day, with checks hand-delivered in Tallahassee and time-stamped within minutes of one another.

Miami Herald staff writer David Ovalle contributed to this report.

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