Elections

Rep. Joe Garcia’s disgraced chief of staff has longstanding ties to the Miami congressman

 

pmazzei@MiamiHerald.com

At least one thing remained the same last year for Miami Democrat Joe Garcia as he shifted from candidate to congressman: his most trusted political adviser.

Jeffrey Garcia, who had shaped the newly elected congressman’s run for office and managed his failed campaign two years earlier, made the move from political operative to congressional chief of staff.

Hiring a Capitol Hill outsider for the top staff job appeared unusual for a first-time congressman trying to navigate Washington’s treacherous politics — and for a career campaign consultant attempting to embrace the task of governing.

But those close to the two men, who are unrelated, knew they shared more than a last name. They were friends for more than a decade, graduates of the same alma mater, brought closer by two hard-fought campaigns. And friends stick together.

Until May 31, when Joe Garcia dismissed Jeffrey Garcia, after he admitted to the congressman that he directed a secret online campaign to submit hundreds of fraudulent absentee-ballot requests for the Aug. 14 primary.

“I couldn’t see straight,” Joe Garcia told The Miami Herald, describing the angry conversation. “He’s a huge loss for me, as a friend and as an adviser.”

The congressman says he didn’t know about the scheme, and prosecutors so far have backed him up. No charges have been filed. Law-enforcement officials seeking computer records raided the family homes on May 31 of John Estes, Garcia’s former campaign manager, and Giancarlo Sopo, his communications director, who has since been placed on unpaid administrative leave.

The raids prompted Jeffrey Garcia, 40, to acknowledge to his boss his involvement in the plot, which the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office began investigating after The Miami Herald found in February that some of the phantom ballot requests could be traced. Prosecutors initially had said otherwise.

Jeffrey Garcia has declined to comment.

“Everything that I know about Jeffrey and the people who know him is positive,” said his attorney, Henry Bell.

Garcia’s fall from grace was striking for a political operative who had a reputation for befriending the candidates who hired him — often long-shots for victory.

“His life was the underdog,” said former Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez, a Democrat who hired Garcia as a lead campaign consultant for his unsuccessful 2008 congressional run.

“I don’t condone anybody doing anything illegally in elections, because I’ve been the victim of that. But I can understand — and I’m not justifying him — but I understand the frustration, because he always played by the rules. The other side didn’t, and he lost. That could have put him in this position.”

Jeffrey Mark Garcia grew up in Miami the son of a Cuban-American father and an Irish-American mother, a distinction that made him somewhat different from his classmates of entirely Cuban descent at the all-boys Belen Jesuit Preparatory School, a breeding ground for Miami-Dade politicians.

His friends describe him as free-spirited, intense and deeply loyal, particularly to other Belen grads running for office, even if they were Republicans. Among them was Miami Commissioner Francis Suarez, a good friend whom Garcia advised in 2009, though he has not worked on Suarez’s current city mayoral race.

Garcia studied business and marketing at Creighton University, a faraway Jesuit school in Omaha, Neb., where his immigrant heritage stood out.

“It was heartbreaking out there to learn there was part of the country that would just as soon not have you here,” he told The Herald in 2000.

He had an early brush with the law in 1992, public records show, when he was arrested at age 20 by Miami-Dade police and charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest without violence. The charges were dropped when he completed a “pre-trial diversion” program, which is typical for first-time offenders.

Garcia got his first taste of politics working on a congressional campaign in Omaha. Eventually, that landed him the job managing the 2000 congressional campaign for then-state Rep. Elaine Bloom, a Miami Beach Democrat challenging longtime Republican Rep. E. Clay Shaw of Fort Lauderdale. On that campaign, he met Joe Garcia.

The tight, well-heeled race, which ended with a narrow Shaw victory confirmed by a pair of recounts, became one of the most closely watched in the country. That gave Garcia an opportunity to make a name for himself.

Garcia would go on to work in races elsewhere in the country. For a time he partnered with the Austin, Texas-based Rindy Miller consulting firm (then Rindy Miller Garcia). He worked in municipal races in Miami Beach and elsewhere in South Florida, frequently with Freddy Balsera, a fellow Democrat trying to get his party to elect more local Hispanics.

“You could get a call at any hour in the middle of the night — he never slept, he never relaxed, it was always about the campaign,” Balsera said. "If I would have ever run for public office, Jeffrey Garcia is the person who would have been my campaign manager."

In 2008, Balsera and Garcia helped recruit three candidates to challenge Miami’s Cuban-American Republicans in Congress, Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart. Martinez, Annette Taddeo-Goldstein — now the Miami-Dade Democratic Party chairwoman — and Joe Garcia ultimately lost, but not before Jeffrey Garcia gained notoriety as Martinez’s consultant.

Garcia set up an amateur sting operation, hiding with a video camera inside the home of an 84-year-old voter, to try to trap a Lincoln Diaz-Balart campaign worker Garcia accused of engaging in absentee-ballot fraud. But the worker was merely dropping off stamps for the voter to mail her ballot.

Still, Garcia asked prosecutors to investigate and compiled sworn statements from three voters who claimed wrongdoing. “It is disturbing that in a win-at-any-cost election, the congressman’s campaign may be resorting to breaking the law,” he said at the time.

Prosecutors found irregularities but not enough evidence to file charges against the four Diaz-Balart operatives. One of them, Sasha Tirador, has little sympathy for Garcia now.

“If Jeffrey Garcia survives this scandal, I’m sure he’ll turn to something else,” she said. “He just doesn’t know how to win a campaign, so he has to lie and cheat.”

It wasn’t just competitors whom the aggressive Garcia sometimes rubbed the wrong way. His friction with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was well-known in political circles; the party went out of its way to bring a candidate other than Joe Garcia into last year’s primary in District 26, which spans Kendall to Key West.

During Joe Garcia’s congressional race two years earlier, The Herald found that Jose Rolando “Roly” Arrojo, a tea-party candidate Republicans suspected of being a ringer in the race, had long-standing ties to Jeffrey Garcia. They had gone to school together and owned a failed real-estate investment firm. Both men denied joining forces to get Arrojo into the race.

Earlier this week, a lawyer for Justin Lamar Sternad, who was convicted for receiving $81,486 in illegal campaign contributions in the Democratic primary against Joe Garcia last year, asked the FBI to investigate Arrojo’s candidacy.

Days after the 2010 election, Jeffrey Garcia married Patricia Rodriguez, who works in video production. His Coral Gables home was in foreclosure before he sold it at a loss, and he was in arrears on his taxes, according to a tax lien that has since been satisfied. By 2012, he was again at the helm of Joe Garcia’s campaign — though not as the official campaign manager.

Joe Garcia said it would have been too expensive to hire Jeffrey Garcia in that position. Instead, Jeffrey Garcia made 26-year-old family friend Estes — one of the two men whose homes were raided last week — the campaign manager, which allowed Garcia to dabble in other races, including for Democrat Patrick Murphy of Jupiter, who defeated Republican Rep. Allen West.

In a rematch, Joe Garcia ousted his Republican rival, Rep. David Rivera, himself plagued by investigations and scandals.

And when the new congressman asked Jeffrey Garcia to lead his D.C. office, Garcia said yes.

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