By John Haughey/The Center Square
A former Florida lawmaker facing felony charges for allegedly orchestrating third-party “ghost” campaigns in at least one, and perhaps three, 2020 state senate district elections go on trial August 30 in Miami-Dade County Circuit Court.
In a case that has launched a broadening probe being nervously watched by Republican campaign organizers, Frank Artiles is accused of paying Alexis Rodriguez, an auto parts dealer, $45,000 to run as a non-party affiliated (NPA) candidate in November’s Senate District 37 election.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Andrea Wolfson Wednesday ordered Artiles to stand trial on four third-degree felony charges – conspiracy to make/accept campaign contributions in excess of legal limits, accepting/making excess campaign contributions, false swearing in connection to an election, and aiding in false voter information.
If convicted, Artiles, who served in the Florida House 2010-16 and Senate in 2017 before resigning after directing a racial slur at Black lawmakers, faces five years in prison.
Artiles and Rodriguez have pleaded not guilty although Rodriguez is cooperating with investigators, his attorney says. In April, he admitted to the Florida Ethics Commission he violated ethics rules for accepting money to enter a race and filing inaccurate documents. He was fined $6,500.
Wolfson Wednesday also set a July 6 hearing to decide if the public can view the state’s evidence. The hearing was requested by The Orlando Sentinel to access now-sealed documents.
Prosecutors allege Artiles orchestrated a ruse to “confuse voters and influence the outcome” in the SD 37 race by recruiting Rodriguez to “siphon votes from the incumbent” because they shared surnames and because the NPA Rodriguez also shared the exact name as the MLB Hall-of-Famer and Miami celebrity.
He received 6,300 out of 215,000 ballots cast in an SD 37 runoff won by 32 votes by Republican Ileana Garcia, who unseated incumbent Democratic José Javier Rodríguez.
According to arrest documents, Artiles paid Rodriguez $45,000 from stacks of cash in his home. A $9,000 cash payment was delivered to Rodriguez by an unidentified third party who has not been charged.
The allegations into the SD 37 “ghost” campaign launched a state investigation that now spans at least two more 2020 senate district races, SD 39 and SD 9.
SD 39 NPA candidate Celso Alfonso, 81, told investigators Artiles recruited him in a barbershop.
Like Rodriguez, Alfonso was a Republican but switched to NPA to qualify for the 2020 ballot. Both had the same campaign finance records and like Rodriguez, he benefited from ‘Proclivity’ mailer-blitzes. The SD 39 race won by Rep. Ana Maria Rodriguez, R-Doral, who defeated Rep. Javier Fernandez, D-South Miami.
The SD 9 race won by Sen. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, featured NPA candidate Jestine Iannotti who never campaigned but received $180,000 in support from Grow United, a Delaware-registered corporation behind ‘Proclivity.’ Brodeur defeated Democrat Patricia Sigman with 50.3% of the vote. Iannotti finished with a critical 2%.
According to records obtained by the Miami Herald, state investigators are subpoenaing “relevant” information from:
- Gainesville-based Data Targeting, a research firm that orchestrated GOP campaigns with Artiles’ Atlas Consulting.
- Tallahassee-based Let’s Preserve the American Dream political action committee that existed 2014-16. Led by GOP strategist/pollster Ryan Tyson, the PAC was funded by Florida Power & Light (FPL), Mosaic Co., and other PACs financed by Disney, U.S. Sugar Corp., and Florida Crystals Corp.
- Baptist Health South Florida Corporate Assistant VP for Audit Wendy Kemp is named a “witness.”
- Cell phone records, photos, text messages, and call logs from a Facebook friend of Artiles’, the unidentified third party who delivered $9,000 in cash to Rodriguez.
- Tallahassee-based GOP strategist Alex Alvarado, who has admitted he created The Truth PC and Our Florida PC PACs related to Grow United and ‘Proclivity,’ which purchased $550,000 in political mailings on behalf of NPA “ghost” runners in three state senate races.
Both PACs were created on Sept. 26, 2020. Both got their only contributions in October – $180,000 for The Truth PC, $370,000 for Our Florida PC – and both were closed effective Dec. 31.