Politics

Former congressional staffer under second investigation

 

mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com

U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia’s former chief of staff and top advisor is under FBI investigation for his ties to a phony Tea Party candidate’s secretly funded mail campaign, the Miami Herald has learned.

Consultant Jeffrey Garcia, no relation to the Miami Democratic congressman, already faces a separate state criminal investigation for allegedly requesting absentee ballots of voters without their permission.

Rep. Garcia has denied participating in or knowing about either scandal. Jeffrey Garcia won’t comment.

In the newly opened federal investigation, a political consultant who worked for Garcia’s campaign told the Herald and the FBI that Jeffrey Garcia was behind then-Tea Party candidate Roly Arrojo’s mailers that attacked a rival of Garcia’s, Republican David Rivera, in the 2010 congressional election.

“Jeff asked me to do a simple print job for him. I wasn’t aware there was any issue with it,” said Michael Kaplan, consultant for Dynamic Strategies. “I am helping [the FBI] and provided all the information requested to help the investigation.”

Kaplan’s statements to the FBI and the media directly contradict Jeffrey Garcia’s longstanding denials two years ago that he was connected to the campaign of Arrojo, whose full name is Jose Rolando Arrojo. At the time, the Herald reported the two went to the same high school and were former business partners.

The FBI found Kaplan through Image Plus Graphics after the Herald reported in June that the well-respected print shop produced and mailed Arrojo’s fliers.

The FBI then subpoenaed all of Image Plus’ records related to Arrojo. Image Plus and Dynamic Strategies are not targets of the investigation.

“When you get a subpoena from the FBI, you give them what they want,” said Cliff Warren, the former president of Image Plus who still works at the company from time to time.

Warren and Kaplan, speaking from memory, said their records indicated Arrojo sent out roughly 18,000 fliers, which would have cost more than $10,000 to produce and mail.

Arrojo reported none of it, even though federal law requires candidates to disclose contributions and expenditures once they exceed $5,000.

Though smaller in scope, the secret-mailer scandal tied to Arrojo and Jeffrey Garcia was a precursor to a similar incident involving the 2012 race between Joe Garcia and then-Rep. Rivera.

In that case, a political unknown named Justin Lamar Sternad was given secret money to print mailers, at least one of which attacked Garcia.

The mail house and printing company that produced and sent Sternad’s mailers are longtime vendors for Rivera’s campaigns. In similar fashion, the mail consultant and print shop that worked for Arrojo also worked for Garcia’s campaigns.

Sternad, convicted in federal court, is helping authorities and told them that a friend of Rivera’s named Ana Alliegro helped put the scam together. No further charges have yet been brought; Sternad’s sentencing is scheduled for later this month.

Sternad’s lawyer, Rick Yabor, wrote the U.S. Attorney’s Office in early June and asked them to investigate Arrojo, pointing out the similar circumstances. Days earlier, Jeffrey Garcia became a target of the state investigation into fraudulent absentee ballot requests in the August 2012 Democratic primary that were flagged by the Herald.

Miami-Dade’s notoriously dirty politics have been under the microscope as of late, with Sternad’s case, the two Jeffrey Garcia-related investigations, a state investigation of Homestead’s mayor, and federal investigations into the mayors of Miami Lakes and Sweetwater as well as a tax case against former Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina, whose uncle was busted in an unrelated state absentee-ballot scandal.

Since 2010, Republicans have complained that Arrojo should have been charged.

During that election, two Republicans filed Federal Elections Commission complaints against Arrojo because the political unknown refused to disclose any campaign finance information. They suspected he was a ringer candidate designed to siphon votes from Rivera.

Arrojo, who has steadfastly refused comment for years, wouldn’t say how he paid the $10,440 qualifying fee to make the ballot and he wouldn’t say how he paid for the mailers. All told, his campaign spent well over $20,000 — none of it disclosed in campaign finance reports.

How Arrojo, a stay-at-home dad, could pay for it all is a mystery. Court records show he has declared bankruptcy, and has had IRS tax liens placed against him and his Coral Gables home, which has been in foreclosure.

The decision to use Image Plus — a Democratic-leaning union shop — was also curious for an alleged Tea Party candidate. Arrojo, before filing as a Tea Party candidate, was a registered Republican. He initially filed to run as a Democrat, and is again now a registered Democrat

By failing to disclose his finances, Arrojo clearly broke the law, the Federal Elections Commission’s acting general counsel, Christopher Hughey, wrote in a memo that nevertheless termed the complaints against Arrojo “low-rated matters.”

Hughey closed the case in June 2011, and Arrojo was just sent letters reminding him that he broke the law.

But though that FEC complaint has been closed, federal authorities could still charge Arrojo or Garcia if they determine the two intentionally hid money or, in Arrojo’s case, lied to the FEC.

Regardless of Arrojo or Jeffrey Garcia’s fates, Joe Garcia could experience the most immediate backlash.

The congressman has drawn at least three Republican challengers, all of whom have questioned what he knew about Jeffrey Garcia’s activities on behalf of his campaign and when he knew it.

“Congressman Garcia has not been contacted by the FBI, so this is the first he hears of this. And as he has previously stated, he does not know Mr. Arrojo,” said Garcia’s new chief of staff, Raul Martinez Jr. “Mr. Garcia stands fully ready to cooperate with authorities.”

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