I got a face full of water the other day, the splash seen ’round the world. To which I’d like to say: Big deal.
It happened as I tried to get some answers from Justin Lamar Sternad, a defeated Democratic congressional candidate, about his connection to U.S. Rep. David Rivera of Miami. I knocked on the door of the Sternad home in Cutler Bay and got soaked. You may have seen the video. It went viral because who doesn’t like seeing a TV reporter get a pitcher of water thrown in his face? l laughed myself when it happened.
There was fair warning. The Sternads posted a sign on their front door warning trespassers they’d “get wet” if they didn’t leave. I stayed and knocked, as any reporter would, and for my temerity got splashed. Cool tap water, for the record, and more surprising than annoying. I don’t think it was malicious, either. Mrs. Sternad, the mother of five, is under tremendous pressure because her husband, Justin, is in a heap of trouble allegedly for not telling the truth about where he got his campaign funds. And for submitting a sworn statement to the Federal Elections Commission that he apparently knew was false. That’s against the law.
A political neophyte, Sternad ran for Congress last summer in the Democratic primary in the 26th District, but his campaign appears to have been planned, managed and allegedly paid for by Rep. Rivera. To the tune of almost $64,000. Sternad, who earned $30,000 last year, says the money was a “loan.”
The go-between in this hanky-panky was Rivera’s very good friend Ana Alliegro, a sometime political consultant and full-time loose cannon.
Ever discreet, with Sternad she referred to Rivera only as “D.R.” or “The Gangster,” according to The Herald’s Marc Caputo and Manny Garcia of El Nuevo Herald. Wow, a member of Congress whose nickname is “The Gangster.” Isn’t that special.
In these circumstances it’s little wonder Sternad isn’t going to take one for the team. Nope, he’s said to be singing his heart out to the FBI and who can blame him? He’s a 35-year-old overnight hotel accountant who apparently thought running for Congress would be something of a lark. Some lark, all right. Nobody’s talking on the record at the U.S. Attorney’s office, but I’d look for the federal grand jury to indict Sternad, who would then negotiate a lenient plea deal with prosecutors in return for testimony against Rivera. What happens to Ms. Alliegro is anyone’s guess. She has disappeared.
As my friends Dave Barry and Carl Hiaasen like to say, you can’t make this stuff up. The reality of South Florida politics is so much stranger, bizarre and improbable than anything a good novelist could make up. Consider: A political consultant sitting around naked with a gun telling her former husband that his weapon is nothing compared to hers? And then she squeezes off a round or two as he tries to leave. Yikes!
What isn’t funny is the dishonor Rep. Rivera’s behavior has brought to his constituents and every hard-working, honest elected official who believes that public service is a sacred trust. Since 1989 when Ileana Ros-Lehtinen was elected to the House, a succession of Cuban Americans has gone to Washington and served honorably. None has been accused of any ethical improprieties. In addition to Ms. Ros-Lehtinen, I’m talking about former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart and his brother Mario, a current House member, and Sen. Marco Rubio. We thank them for their honest service.
David Rivera could have joined that group if he’d chosen to. But he made other choices. Bad choices. Which is a shame because he’s smart, engaging and loves politics. I’ve had a good relationship with him since we met 16 years ago when he was a young activist working in the Bob Dole presidential campaign. But somewhere along the line David put his political ambitions above his duty to his constituents and his country. He cut ethical corners. He was secretive. He intermingled campaign and personal funds. He became emblematic of everything people dislike about smarmy South Florida politicians. And what was the end game of running the campaign of an unqualified Democratic candidate?
As the late Judge Ed Cowart once said so memorably, “You went the wrong way, partner.”