Federal prosecutors had half a decade to bring criminal charges against former U.S. Rep. David Rivera in an illegal campaign-finance scheme that landed two of his co-conspirators in jail.
They didn’t. And now, they will no longer be able to do so.
Tuesday marked the five-year anniversary of the last recorded act in the conspiracy involving at least $69,000 in secret money Rivera, a Republican who was then a member of Congress, was suspected to have funneled into the campaign of Justin Lamar Sternad, a ringer candidate in the 2012 Democratic primary. As of Wednesday, the statute of limitations to indict Rivera on any of the same charges as his co-conspirators will have expired.
Rivera will have escaped criminal prosecution, though the feds are still going after him in civil court.
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He is now a 2018 candidate for the Florida House of Representatives, the chamber where he began his political career in 2002.
“I can’t really fathom how a person that has been named as a co-conspirator is out there, while I had to serve a sentence, and so did Mr. Sternad,” Ana Alliegro, the Republican consultant Rivera used as a go-between to send Sternad money, told the Miami Herald in an interview Tuesday. “What upsets me is that politicians don’t go to jail in this state. I don’t get it. They don’t get reprimanded.”
Sternad and Alliegro both pleaded guilty, in 2013 and 2014, respectively. Alliegro was sentenced to six months in prison and six months’ house arrest, and Sternad to 30 days in prison and three months’ house arrest.
Rivera has long denied any wrongdoing, even after U.S. District Judge Robert Scola forced Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Mulvihill, the prosecutor on the case, to name Rivera twice in open court as the investigation’s target.
Rivera avoided charges in a 2011 federal investigation, also led by Mulvihill, into alleged tax improprieties regarding his campaign funds and a secret consulting contract for a local gambling company when he was a state lawmaker. The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s office also declined to charge Rivera in relation to that case — despite finding he had essentially lived off his campaign account — citing an old statute of limitations and ambiguous laws.
The U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment Tuesday, as did Mulvihill.
“This was all fake news from the start,” Rivera told the Herald, casting aspersions on the prosecutor who didn’t charge him. “And Mulvihill’s lust for notoriety and pathetic desire to make up for his many career failures drove the entire charade.”
Behind Mulvihill’s reluctance to prosecute was uncertainty over whether Alliegro, the crucial link between Rivera and Sternad, would have been a reliable witness in a trial where her testimony could have been decisive.
Alliegro, Rivera’s ex-girlfriend, testified against him in 2014, telling a federal grand jury nearly two dozen times that he was the mastermind behind illicitly financing Sternad’s campaign — a move intended to siphon votes away from Democrat Joe Garcia, who won the primary and ultimately defeated Rivera in the November 2012 general election.
“He’s obviously being protected,” Alliegro said Tuesday of Rivera. “He’s got friends in high places.”
She pointed to a 2015 Rivera memo claiming Mulvihill, the prosecutor, had told the then-congressman in 2011 he was “bitter and disappointed” he hadn’t been appointed U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida years earlier. In the memo, Rivera claimed Mulvihill’s friends wanted Rivera to advocate on his behalf to U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio if Mitt Romney became president in 2012 and could name a new local top prosecutor.
Neither Rivera nor Mulvihill has ever commented on the allegation.
“The government had their reasons for not charging him, and I don’t know what those reasons are,” Rick Yabor, Sternad’s defense attorney, said of Rivera. “But as a former prosecutor, I know that sometimes you wouldn’t file something because you wouldn’t feel that certain evidence was strong — or, in this particular case, there was a wild-card witness. As far as my client is concerned, he’s moving on with his life.”
By law, prosecutors are not merely advocates but also “ministers of justice” tasked with bringing forth only cases they think they can win, said Bob Jarvis, a Nova Southeastern University law and ethics professor.
“From a legal standpoint, the government had its chance, and the government didn’t take a chance, and obviously Rivera can stand up and say, ‘The reason the government never charged me is there wasn’t enough evidence, and the prosecutor didn’t believe he could get a conviction,’” Jarvis said. “From a political standpoint, this is something that every one of his opponents is going to raise and is going to say, ‘Where there’s smoke, there’s fire — and just because the prosecutor for whatever reason didn’t charge doesn’t meant this person is fit for office.’”
Rivera still faces a court case filed last month by the Federal Election Commission, which is seeking $486,000 in penalties over the at least $69,000 in unreported cash to Sternad’s campaign. The July 14 filing in Miami federal court was the strongest indication Mulvihill had formally given up on charging Rivera criminally, clearing the way for the FEC to pursue its civil complaint.
Rivera had 21 days to respond to a court summons dated July 19. He has yet to do so, and no attorney has registered on his behalf.
A $57,821.96 Florida Commission on Ethics fine against Rivera over improperly disclosed income and double-billed travel expenses from his time in the statehouse is still pending. Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who is empowered to fine former lawmakers, has taken no steps to impose it.
Rivera narrowly lost a state House bid last year.
Miami Herald staff writer Jay Weaver contributed to this report.