Politics

U.S. 26th District hopefuls move on as David Rivera is officially named in campaign rigging

 

David Rivera’s four opponents in the Republican congressional primary have largely ignored the once-influential politician, preferring instead to focusing on Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia.

 
FILE: Embattled Congressman David Rivera speaks to the Miami media on October 24, 2012, about the allegations by state authorities that he broke 11 ethics charges while serving in the Florida Legislature.
FILE: Embattled Congressman David Rivera speaks to the Miami media on October 24, 2012, about the allegations by state authorities that he broke 11 ethics charges while serving in the Florida Legislature.
C.M. GUERRERO / EL NUEVO HERALD

jweaver@MiamiHerald.com

Although the mysterious name behind “Co-conspirator A” was already known, the timing of its disclosure in a Miami courtroom last week could not have been worse for David Rivera.

Rivera’s friend, Ana Alliegro, pleaded guilty Tuesday to conspiring with the former Republican congressman to finance a novice candidate who challenged Rivera’s archrival, Joe Garcia, in the 2012 Democratic primary. Her testimony is considered crucial to any possible indictment of Rivera.

Yet Rivera’s four opponents in Tuesday’s Republican primary for the 26th Congressional District — as they’ve done throughout the campaign — have largely ignored the once-influential politician, knowing full well that media coverage of the federal probe has badly damaged him. They have preferred to focus on Garcia.

“We don’t lay judgment on other people,” Cutler Bay Mayor Ed MacDougall said after a Friday debate. He was referring to himself and Joe Martinez, two Rivera rivals and former Miami-Dade County police officers.

Earlier Friday, Miami-Dade School Board member Carlos Curbelo, who has far outraised the other contenders, wouldn’t even mention Rivera or Alliegro by name in a 15-minute paid advertising spot on Spanish-language radio station WAQI-AM (710), known as Radio Mambí. Curbelo said only that “a woman” recently declared herself guilty.

“There’s an ex-congressman who has been named in that case,” he added, before shifting to bash Garcia.

Attorney Lorenzo Palomares-Starbuck, a longshot to win the primary, is the only one taking aim at Rivera.

“He is the culprit [for putting] Joe Garcia in office,” said Palomares-Starbuck. “He is the one that has created this circus in District 26, and the reason why all these recycled politicians are trying to get back on the merry-go-round.”

“Congress is the house of laws, and you need someone versed in law to represent the voters honestly and ethically.”

Rivera entered the congressional race while under investigation, and briefly suspendeded his campaign only to later renew it.

At Alliegro’s plea hearing, a federal judge insisted that a prosecutor disclose the name of “Co-conspirator A.” Reluctantly, Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Mulvihill gave up Rivera’s name — indicating for the first time that he was an “unindicted” criminal target.

“I want to know who this conspirator is,” U.S. District Judge Robert Scola told Mulvihill. “I want her to know who it is, and she can say, ‘Yes, I did that’ or not.”

Then Mulvihill said Rivera’s name.

Rivera would not comment about the court revelation or its impact on his re-election hopes for the district stretching from Westchester to Key West.

“What the federal government has done to Ana Alliegro has no name,” Rivera said in a Spanish-language statement after his friend pleaded guilty to four election campaign violations. “I’m sure Ana is innocent and only took this step to end the pressures from the government.”

Being outed as an “unindicted” co-conspirator at Alliegro’s plea hearing marks Rivera as a potential criminal suspect.

As policy, the U.S. Attorney’s Office does not identify unindicted co-conspirators, either because they’re usually not charged or because prosecutors want to protect them as cooperating witnesses.

But Rivera does not fall into either of those categories.

On Tuesday, the prosecutor, Mulvihill, under pressure from Judge Scola, identified Rivera as “Co-conspirator A” in the $81,000 campaign-finance scheme to prop up a little-known candidate, Justin Lamar Sternad, in the 2012 Democratic primary.

“Why do we keep not naming the co-conspirator?” Judge Scola asked Mulvihill. “We’re way past that time. Why is that person’s identity still being withheld?”

Rivera’s ties to the case have been reported by the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald since 2012, but he had denied wrongdoing and also being the target of any investigation.

Scola said he wanted Mulvihill to leave no doubt, so that Alliegro would acknowledge her co-conspirator when she pleaded guilty.

Mulvihill then made the first of six direct mentions of Rivera, who is suspected of also helping Alliegro leave the United States for Nicaragua when she was supposed to be cooperating with prosecutors.

“In early April 2012, the defendant, Ana Alliegro, met at the Catch of the Day Restaurant with Congressman David Rivera and another individual,” Mulvihill said.

“At that point, David Rivera directed Ana Alliegro to meet with Justin Lamar Sternad to assist, and she then met with Justin Lamar Sternad,” Mulvihill said. “She called him. She met with him. She told him that she had connections to provide the financing for his campaign.”

Mulvihill described Sternad as an “extremely poor man” who accepted her offer as a “lifesaver.” Sternad, who already pleaded guilty to election law violations, said he was used by Alliegro and Rivera at his sentencing hearing in July. He received seven months in prison.

Alliegro’s guilty plea enables the FBI and prosecutors to focus exclusively on their last and main target, Rivera.

Alliegro, who has been held without bond for nearly six months, pleaded guilty to four counts of violating federal election laws, including conspiracy, illegal campaign donations and making false statements.

She did not, however, cut a formal plea deal requiring her to testify against Rivera. She faces between 12 and 18 months in prison at her sentencing Sept. 10. But once that is finalized, the U.S. attorney’s office is expected to subpoena her to testify before the grand jury.

Under that scenario, Alliegro would have no legal basis to invoke her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Her testimony — coupled with Sternad’s statements and bank, cell phone and campaign expense records — is considered critical to the prosecution’s case against Rivera.

“Adding in the testimony from Alliegro, who had direct contact with Rivera and acted as his shield, will give them what should be the proof beyond a reasonable doubt needed to obtain a conviction,” said Miami lawyer David Weinstein, former chief of the public corruption section at the U.S. Attorney’s office

Alliegro’s defense attorneys, John Bergendahl and Richard Klugh, declined to comment on whether Alliegro would testify.

“That’s a call that will have to be made by the government,” Bergendahl said. “It’s clear from the plea that every option is open.”

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