A Cuban-born grocery store owner who starred in a Rick Scott Spanish language television campaign ad touting the governor’s job creation record was convicted on human smuggling charges in St. Maarten four years ago.
Maikel Duarte-Torres, who gives Scott a hug and a plug in the 30-second spot, is featured as a Florida success story.
“Four years ago, the economy was very bad. Rick Scott helped Florida’s economy and you can see the difference. He’s created jobs. That’s why I support Rick Scott. I’m just like him. I’m like the American Dream,” Duarte-Torres said in the commercial filmed during a campaign stop at his Tampa store in May.
Scott, his campaign staff, and the Republican Party of Florida were apparently unaware, however, that Duarte-Torres was arrested on Nov. 14, 2010, in the Caribbean nation for his alleged role in a smuggling ring that attempted to ferry 10 Cuban migrants from St. Maarten to Miami. Duarte-Torres was convicted five months later by a St. Maarten criminal court judge.
He was sentenced to two years in prison, but served just two days because of jail overcrowding on the island, according to Tineka Kampfe, a spokeswoman with the St. Maarten attorney general’s office. Kampfe told BrowardBulldog.org that Duarte-Torres was allowed to return home to Tampa on the condition he never sets foot in St. Maarten again.
Duarte-Torres did not return three messages left on his cellphone voicemail. He also did not respond to a letter faxed to his business, MD Food Market, 4019 W. Hillsborough Ave., Tampa.
David Custin, a Miami-based political consultant who has worked for Republican candidates running for state and federal office, urged Scott’s campaign and the Republican Party to quickly cut ties with Duarte-Torres and stop running the ad, which began airing in the Miami market on local station America Teve in late July.
“It’s pretty bad to have the governor running an ad with a convicted human trafficker,” Custin said. “But if his people respond quickly and own up to what happened, then it won’t be as bad as sweeping it under the rug and not dealing with it.”
Monday afternoon, a spokesman for the campaign said the ad was no longer being aired.
“It was not pulled,” Greg Blair said. “The run simply ended” last week.
Duarte-Torres is a member of the “Small Business for Scott” Coalition, a group of more than 100 business owners from 67 counties that has endorsed the governor for reelection. In May, Scott and Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera made a campaign stop at MD Food Market, where Duarte-Torres joined the two politicians as they fielded questions from reporters.
Duarte-Torres told the Tampa Bay Times that his store employs 18 people full-time and that he dreams of owning a chain of MD Food Markets. “I started with a watermelon in my hand, selling fruits and vegetables on Lois Avenue,” Duarte-Torres said. “Things have grown from there.”
During the photo-op, a film crew also shot footage for the commercial featuring Duarte-Torres. The spot, paid by the Republican Party of Florida, shows the 32-year-old stocking items on the shelves, interacting with his employees, and giving in an interview in Spanish.
“The most important thing [in Florida] are jobs,” Duarte-Torres said in the ad. “Let’s continue working toward that.”
Duarte-Torres was the alleged mastermind of the human smuggling ring busted in St. Maarten. Several articles published by Today, the island nation’s daily newspaper, detail Duarte-Torres’ crime.
At his trial in March 2011, Duarte-Torres said that he traveled to St. Maarten at the request of a friend to deliver $2,000 to Erold Montgomery Bolan, a 64-year-old cab driver who assisted human smugglers in transporting illegal immigrants from Haiti and Cuba across the Florida Straits. Duarte-Torres claimed the money was payment for moving two Cuban females from St. Maarten to the U.S. Virgin Islands.
However, M.L.P. Ridderbeks, the prosecutor in the case, argued that Duarte-Torres played a larger role in a ring that had brought over 10 Cubans to St. Maarten on a boat called the Braveheart. Ridderbeks said the migrants each paid $12,500 to the smugglers. Duarte-Torres maintained contact with Bolan and a Cuban woman known as “Adele” in St. Lucia to organize the transport of the 10 migrants.
Kampfe, the attorney general’s spokeswoman, confirmed Duarte-Torres was found guilty and sentenced to two years, but was released because there was no room for him in the local jail. Kampe provided BrowardBulldog.org with a birth date and Tampa address for Duarte-Torres that matches records in a background report on the MD Food Market owner.
Custin said it is unlikely the Republican Party or Scott’s campaign were aware of Duarte-Torres’ conviction. “It’s not a presidential or congressional race that requires a high degree of vetting and research before you use the person in an ad,” Custin said. “They don’t do international background checks on people.”
Duarte-Torres has not been arrested for any crimes in Florida.
Florida Bulldog is a not-for-profit news organization created to provide investigative reporting in the public interest. Contributions are tax-deductible. www.floridabulldog.org.