Showing “corrupt intent,” former Florida lawmaker and current congressional candidate David Rivera double-billed taxpayers and his campaign for travel — and also failed to properly file complete financial-disclosure forms for years, a state administrative law judge has ruled.
Judge W. David Watkins also indicated that he didn’t believe much of the scandal-plagued Rivera’s defense, calling some of his testimony “non-credible.”
In his 37-page recommendation to the Florida Commission on Ethics, Watkins found Rivera violated three state ethics laws, one of them every year between 2005 and 2009, when Rivera appeared to be living off campaign money but failing to report his income properly.
The judge also suggested evidence had been destroyed, a check had been “improperly” backdated and Rivera had failed to properly report a secret payment from a casino.
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Rivera has long denied wrongdoing. And he made much of the fact that, of the 11 potential violations the commission slapped him with in October 2012, four had been dropped, including one alleging a conflict of interest over a gambling vote. The judge dismissed another in his recommendation Friday.
“I’m very pleased that this process has resulted in the majority of allegations being dismissed, and I look forward to the remaining allegations being dismissed soon,” Rivera said Monday.
If the commission finds him guilty, however, the Florida House of Representatives has jurisdiction over civil penalties, if any. Regardless, Rivera faces fines but no jail time.
Still, the judge’s order comes at an inopportune time for Rivera.
Last month, Rivera filed to run against Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia, who defeated the then-congressman in 2012 amid a federal investigation into the Republican’s role in a campaign-finance scandal. It has resulted in one conviction and the indictment of Rivera’s friend, Ana Alliegro.
Rivera has so far weathered another federal investigation, by the Internal Revenue Service, over his finances and a $132,000 secret payment from the company now known as Magic City Casino for elections consulting work in 2005.
The Magic City money, part of a $1 million consulting contract, was arranged by Rivera, who directed the company to pay him via his now-deceased mother’s company, Millennium Marketing. Rivera claimed that the $132,000 were a “contingent liability loan” that he didn’t have to report because it wasn’t income.
Watkins — like the Florida Attorney General’s Office and Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigators — didn’t believe Rivera, who is listed in the file as a “respondent.”
“Respondent’s testimony that both he and Millennium considered the loans to be contingent is not supported by the evidence and is rejected,” Watkins wrote. “The greater weight of the evidence supports the conclusion that the $132,000 in payments made to Respondent from 2007 through 2010 were compensation paid to Respondent for his consulting work on the gaming referendum, rather than the proceeds of loans from Millennium.”
However, Watkins said, he couldn’t find Rivera guilty of failing to report the gambling money as income because the ethics commission and attorney general’s office had not met a higher standard requiring “clear and convincing evidence.”
Watkins also highlighted how Rivera disclosed only his legislative salary of about $30,000 annually, but his bank account records showed his yearly income ranged from $52,473 to $101,000, the judge found.
The ethics case grew out of a criminal investigation launched by the FDLE and the Miami-Dade state attorney after a series of Herald articles in 2010 that questioned Rivera’s finances and disclosures as he successfully ran for Congress. Rivera served in the Florida House from 2002 to 2010.
Investigators wanted to hit Rivera with 52 charges of theft, money laundering and racketeering. Those charges were never filed because Rivera’s attorney poked holes in their case.
The most serious remaining ethics charge: accepting tens of thousands of dollars in travel reimbursements from the state for expenses that had been paid for using campaign funds.
Rivera has called the double-billing charge “patently false,” saying that when he used his campaign donations to pay off his personal credit cards, he was not paying for the monthly bills themselves but for running debts for out-of-pocket campaign costs. He maintained during the hearing that he’s still owed money — “$76,011.12, to be exact.”
But Judge Watkins said Rivera’s “testimony in this regard is rejected as non-credible” and that the evidence “clearly and convincingly established that this double-reimbursement was knowing and intentional.”
The judge wrote that the state, in one case, met the burden of proof to show “corrupt intent” by Rivera.
The other five leftover charges are for failing to fully disclose his finances from 2005 to 2009. For years Rivera claimed to work as a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, which had no record of hiring him. Rivera then amended those financial disclosures in to delete any USAID references.
When he testified in the case, Rivera suggested he was being unfairly punished because he listed USAID in an abundance of caution though he derived no income from it.
“I never thought I would be punished or that there would be a penalty for over reporting,” Rivera said. “I was always told ‘when in doubt, report or over-report.’”
The ethics commission also found Rivera failed to file a final disclosure within 60 days of leaving the Florida House, as required. He submitted the form after the deadline.
The latest court file and the judge’s ruling indicate Rivera was living off money from his campaign accounts, which “were used to pay for personal purchases, including food, travel, video rentals, dental care, pharmacy purchases, Toys-R-Us purchases, movies and Broadway show tickets.”
Rivera claimed these were all legitimate expenses — especially when it came to his fund dedicated to the little-known and obscure office of Republican Party state committeeman, a totally unregulated post that allows sitting lawmakers to raise and spend money with no oversight or public disclosure.
Watkins ruled that Rivera presented “no evidence” to justify his claims about his expenditures.
“Respondent’s committeeman campaign accounts were primarily used to pay Respondent’s personal credit card charges,” Watkins wrote.
The ethics commission’s senior investigator, former cop Alan Keith Powell, testified that Rivera’s failure to properly report his finances stood out.
“This case has not been typical,” Powell said. “This was a whole lot different. I mean, a whole lot more involved. There was a lot of information that was left off and information that should have been put on there that was left off.”