The police report contained no evidence. The accuser wouldn’t return police calls or letters over the course of a month seeking confirmation. There were no charges filed or reprimands sent because the allegations against Miami-Dade Schools Police Sgt. Robert Asencio were never verified.
But for David Rivera and the political consultants being paid by him, an allegation was all they needed to hang a thin deceptive claim in robocalls and mailers that his opponent in the tight race for state House had allegedly broken the law.
Rivera’s campaign, and the political committee supporting him, have been running robocalls and an ad on Spanish language television repeating the unsubstantiated accusations against his Democratic opponent, Asencio.
On Wednesday, the campaign’s practices cost Rivera. In a statement to its members, the Miami-Dade chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police announced it “emphatically and unequivocally withdraws our endorsement of David Rivera,” the former Republican congressman who is seeking to return to the state Legislature in House District 118.
“David Rivera is running a false and defamatory campaign against career public servant and distinguished police officer Robert Asencio,” said Javier Ortiz, district director of the Fraternal Order of Police, District 6, in the statement.
“The Fraternal Order of Police does not support David Rivera’s smear tactics and obscene insinuations about Robert’s character and career accomplishments,” Ortiz said. “Unlike Robert, who was cleared of any wrongdoing while protecting the community, Mr. Rivera was just found guilty and fined over $57,000 by the state of Florida. Floridians have the right to vote based on facts, not on politically promoted smear campaigns.”
Rivera has been fined by the Florida Commission on Ethics for accepting illicit campaign contributions. He is under federal criminal investigation regarding an unlawful 2012 campaign-finance scheme to run a ringer candidate against former U.S. Congressman Joe Garcia. Rivera lost bids for re-election in 2012 and 2014, and barely defeated political rookie Anthony Rodriguez in the August Republican primary, winning by only 174 votes.
He said in a statement Wednesday that he considers the FOP endorsement still in force.
“No re-vote of the members has been taken to rescind my endorsement,” he said. “That’s why so many FOP members continue to support me.”
Asencio, a military veteran, retired in 2015 after 26 years on the Miami-Dade Schools police force. He is a founder of the Florida Public Employees Partnership, a nonprofit, nonpartisan state employee advocacy organization. He has received the endorsement of the Dade County Police Benevolent Association, the International Union of Police Associations, Teamsters Local 769 and other unions.
Rivera has outraised Asencio nearly five to one and he and the political committee supporting him have used the money to finance daily robocalls as well as mailers repeating the unsubstantiated accusations against Asencio.
The allegations accuse Asencio, a retired police sergeant and investigator, of being a “child abuser” even though the school district has said those claims are unsubstantiated.
When the Miami Herald confronted Rivera about the claim last week, he asked to put his answer in writing. In a carefully crafted statement, he repeated the discredited allegations. He refused to answer if he considered them true. He would not answer if he believed the school district harbored child abusers on its staff.
The Herald presented the evidence that his claim was based on a complaint by a Hialeah parent in 2003 who said an officer with the Miami-Dade school district pulled her son “out of his seat by the neck and shirt” while riding on a school bus in February 2003 because she said her son was “disrespectful.” The school district investigated the complaint, found no wrongdoing, and closed the case with a memo to the file, as required by law.
Rivera then asked the Herald to include a new, also unsubstantiated claim, about his opponent in his comment. The paper refused.
But Rivera and his opposition-research team manipulated the words in the print version of the story to prop up their attack on Asencio. They copied the quote from Rivera that repeated the allegation, removed the quotation marks, merged sentences together, inserted the reporter’s byline, placed the Miami Herald masthead above it, and sent it out as a mailer.
“The Rivera campaign selectively took his own words from our reporting out of context, misrepresenting how the Miami Herald reported on this issue,” said Aminda Marqués Gonzalez, executive editor of the Miami Herald in a statement. “It is completely deceptive.”
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Rivera responded that the words on the mailer were “100 percent accurate” but he refused to answer why he selectively took the words out of context.
Asencio said Rivera’s actions are backfiring. Polls show Rivera, who served in the state House from 2002-10, is now trailing in the Republican-leaning district.
“While he’s making baseless allegations, we’ve been focused on the issues and speaking to voters,” Asencio said. “There’s too much at stake in this race, and there’s no place for a corrupt career politician like Rivera who is only in it for himself. Elected officials ought to hold the integrity of the public they serve, and that’s why we have so much support.”
Voters have also complained about the accusations and robocalls that are coming daily. Michael Rosenberg, president of the Pet’s Trust, told the Herald/Times that he called the school district to validate the claims in the recorded message to his home and after receiving several mailers from the Rivera campaign. Rivera then called him.
“He told me: ‘You don’t know how government works,’ ” Rosenberg said Wednesday. “He implied there was a cover-up but, in this case, government worked by calling the mother over and over and she never once responded. There was nothing there. He is guilty of slander.”
Rosenberg said that Rivera’s actions have persuaded him to vote against him and it “demonstrates a failed and flawed candidate who is so desperate to win, that he’ll say anything.”
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas