Justin Lamar Sternad, a hotel worker and father of five, just wanted to be somebody in the eyes of his family. So he set his sights on a seat in Congress.
“I wanted my wife, children and family to be proud of me,” Sternad, 37, told a judge Thursday in Miami federal court.
Despite his good intentions, Sternad admitted in so many words that he allowed GOP campaign consultant Ana Alliegro and her close friend, then-U.S. Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami, to recruit him as a straw candidate to challenge Rivera’s political enemy, Joe Garcia, in the 2012 Democratic primary. Garcia went on to beat Rivera in the final election.
“I hate to admit that I was naive,” Sternad told U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga. “I hate to admit that Ana Alliegro and David Rivera were able to take advantage of me.”
Sternad, who had pleaded guilty last year to violating election laws, issued an apology but asked the judge for lenient punishment: home confinement. Showing some sympathy, Altonaga sentenced him to seven months in prison — less than the eight-month term recommended by the U.S. attorney’s office because of his cooperation. Under sentencing guidelines, Sternad had been facing up to one year in prison.
“You did begin with good intentions but were led astray and used by Ana Alliegro and others,” Altonaga said, without referring to Rivera by name.
The judge ordered Sternad, whose wife wept in the courtroom while a few of his children waited outside, to surrender to prison authorities on Sept. 26. She also gave him one year of probation after he completes his sentence and ordered him to serve 100 hours of community service.
But Sternad could see his prison sentence reduced further because he has been helping authorities, including pledging to testify against Alliegro at her trial set for late August.
“I think he should be given credit for what he has done to date,” prosecutor Thomas Mulvihill told the judge, adding that he would recommend another sentence reduction for Sternad after Alliegro’s trial.
Sternad has told prosecutors and the FBI that Alliegro — a Rivera confidante who was his de facto campaign manager during the 2012 Democratic Primary election — helped steer illegal campaign contributions to him.
The federal elections investigation has featured all the plot twists of a soap opera: Sternad had no political experience before he was recruited by Alliegro to run for Congress in the Democratic primary. Sternad worked as an $11-an-hour, night-time hotel worker on Miami Beach, commuting by bus from his home in Cutler Bay.
His campaign manager, Alliegro, a “self-described Republican bad girl,” fled to Nicaragua to avoid FBI agents and prosecutors who wanted her to dish the dirt on her close friend, Rivera. Although she was arrested in March, it remains to be seen whether she will be of any help in nailing Rivera.
As for Rivera, the suspected mastermind behind Sternad’s doomed candidacy, he lost his congressional seat to Garcia. But earlier this year, while under investigation, Rivera announced he will be seeking his post again in the November 2014 election. He has denied wrongdoing in the past election.
Rivera said in a statement: "Mr. Sternad is a pathetic convicted liar with no credibility whom I have never met or spoken to in my entire life."
Sternad didn't have to say much in the courtroom back in March 2013, when he pleaded guilty to accepting illegal campaign contributions, making a false statement and conspiracy charges.
“I was taken advantage of and used by others,” Sternad said in a statement, hastily handwritten on a yellow legal pad and read by his lawyer, Enrique “Rick” Yabor, outside the federal courthouse.
“This is not an excuse, nor do I want this interpreted as an excuse,” Sternad said.
The FBI launched its investigation in November 2012 after campaign vendors told The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald that Alliegro and Rivera helped steer tens of thousands of dollars in unreported cash and checks to Sternad's Democratic campaign for Congressional District 26, which stretched from Kendall to Key West.
The federal documents in Sternad's case only say that “co-conspirators” helped direct the secret money, at least $81,486, in less than three months during the summer of 2012. The cash promoted Sternad's candidacy as he attacked Garcia, a fellow Democrat and Rivera rival.
In court Thursday, Mulvihill, the prosecutor, mentioned Alliegro by name, but not Rivera, as being among Sternad’s co-conspirators.
“Every dime that that was spent on his campaign was funneled from Ana Alliegro and other outside sources,” Mulvihill told the judge. “Almost all of it was paid for in cash.”
Sternad's campaign produced at least a dozen separate types of high-quality campaign mailers that targeted a broad array of voters and, in one case, attacked Garcia over his divorce. As a political neophyte and unknown who had never run for office, Sternad didn't have the background to produce such sophisticated campaign work.
And Sternad's campaign reports showed he received no money to pay for it all. Also, his financial disclosures indicated he didn't have the cash to self-fund his campaign.
Not only were Sternad's campaign finances suspicious, his campaign manager was as well. Alliegro was a hardcore Republican, making the operative an odd choice to run a Democratic campaign.
As a close friend of Rivera's, Alliegro was ostensibly working against her own pal by representing Sternad, who would have faced the congressman had he won the August 2012 Democratic primary against Garcia and others.
Sternad lost the primary to Garcia, who went on to beat Rivera in the November general election.
But by then, the damage was done to Sternad.
Early on, Sternad said he just wanted to run for Congress to make a difference. He found out how tough it was as an unknown.
Sternad first complained to The Miami Herald that he wasn't getting coverage. He couldn't really fund-raise. And he struggled to get the signatures needed to qualify for the ballot.
Then, just before the qualifying deadline, Alliegro called him and said she would back him and run his campaign. Suddenly, $10,500 was deposited into Sternad's bank accounts, federal records show.
The money enabled him to pay the qualifying fee that the state requires in lieu of the tough-to-gather signatures to qualify by petition.
The money then poured in to help Sternad. Almost none of it was reported.
On Thursday, Sternad took responsibility for his crime, but also pointed fingers at Alliegro and Rivera.
He told the judge: “All I wish now is that I’d never heard the names Ana Aliegro and David Rivera.”
Miami Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this story.