POLITICS

Politically active Hialeah pain clinic owner to face campaign-related felony charges

 

Mark Cereceda made his employees donate more than $25,000 to candidates across the state, according to the State Attorney’s Office

dovalle@MiamiHerald.com

A politically active Hialeah pain clinic owner surrendered Friday on allegations that he engineered illegal campaign contributions to candidates across the state.

Investigators believe chiropractor Mark Cereceda — who once lobbied lawmakers to keep intact Florida’s personal injury protection law — made clinic employees donate to candidates, then reimbursed the workers in cash and checks.

Cereceda’s brother, Kemel Cereceda, also was charged with a felony and one misdemeanor relating to illegal contributions. Charges also were brought against Mark Cereceda’s clinic, Florida Wellness & Rehabilitation Center, which specializes in treating traffic accident victims.

By Florida law, an individual or company can only donate $500 to each candidate. According to an arrest warrant, Cereceda had 30 employees or their family members donate to campaigns.

“Most, if not all, of the employees did not have any knowledge of who the candidates were that they contributed to,” according to arrest warrant by Miami-Dade Detective Joaquin Garcia and State Attorney investigator Bob Fielder.

Investigators believe Cereceda got his employees to contribute more than $25,000 to candidates between 2010 and 2012, the warrant said.

That included Florida Senate President Don Gaetz, state Sen. Joe Negron and Miami-Dade County Commissioner Rebeca Sosa. Others included Carlos Trujillo, Katie Edwards and Eddy Gonzalez — all candidates for state representative.

Investigators do not believe any of the candidates knew of the illegal contributions.

The Cerecedas secured the “straw donors” as an “ongoing practice and pattern of concealing the sources of illegal campaign monies,” according to the warrant signed off on by public corruption prosecutor Tim VanderGiesen.

The brothers still were in jail Friday night.

“We are staying in close communication with the State Attorney’s office in these matters and are working to reach a satisfactory resolution in this case,” lawyers Gus Lage and John Priovolos said in a statement.

Detectives began investigating after news broke last year that Ana Maria Pando, a Hialeah-branch county court judge, had penned a letter to state authorities — on official letterhead — asking that Cereceda’s company be reinstated.

The clinic had let its business license lapse. The Florida Division of Corporations treated the judge’s letter as a court order and reinstated the company for free.

Pando was investigated for ethics violations, a probe eventually dropped when she lost a reelection big last year and she agreed not to run again. At the time, companies affiliated with Cereceda had cases pending before Pando. And Cereceda also contributed to her reelection campaign. The Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission accused Pando of not reporting a “financial gift” from Cereceda.

In 2007, Cereceda lobbied Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, then the Florida House speaker, for the continuation of the expiring “personal insurance protection” law, which allows for up to $10,000 in medical expenses and lost wages for people injured in accidents. The law, criticized for promoting rampant fraud through pain and wellness clinics, was extended several months later — with Rubio and others adding some reforms aimed at cracking down on fraud.

Meanwhile, Cereceda also made political news when his mother bought a house from Rubio. Public records showed that the price of the home was in line with comparable home sales. But former Gov. Charlie Crist, running against Rubio for Congress at the time, accused his opponent of shenanigans relating to the sale.

Rubio called Crist’s accusations “categorically false,” insisting that the transaction was an “arms-length transaction.”

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