August 15, 2012

Suspected Rivera-ringer might have broken campaign laws

After spending thousands of dollars on mailings in his bid for Congress, Justin Lamar Sternad didn’t disclose the expenditures on his campaign finance reports.

A Democratic congressional candidate may have violated federal campaign-finance laws after spending at least $24,000 in cash on mailers without disclosing the source of the funds.

Justin Lamar Sternad, one of several candidates who lost Tuesday’s District 26 Democratic primary election to Joe Garcia, paid for the mailers in cash. The work was done by Rapid Mail & Computer Services, a well-known Hialeah mail firm, owner John Borrero told The Miami Herald/El Nuevo Herald.

Borrero estimated that each of Sternad’s six mailers cost $4,000 to $5,000. He said Sternad paid him, beginning in August, on repeated occasions. The payments could have totaled as much as $30,000.

“He came in and paid for them in cash,” Borrero said, adding that other campaigns had paid with cash but that many pay with a check.

Garcia and Democratic candidates in the other campaigns have claimed Sternad was a plant from the campaign of Republican Rep. David Rivera, who faces Garcia in the general election.

Rivera and Sternad, a 35-year-old Cutler Bay resident, have denied that he is a ringer.

Rivera, like many Republicans, is among Rapid Mail’s former clients. Rivera’s congressional campaign spent about $16,000 with Rapid Mail in 2010, when he bested Garcia.

Asked by The Herald if there was a connection to Rivera in the mailings, Borrero said that Sternad came to his warehouse to make the payments by himself.

Sternad’s Federal Election Commission reports and personal financial filings give little indication that he could afford the mailers or the nearly $11,000 he loaned his campaign.

Married to a wife with no income, Sternad earned less than $30,000 working for two South Beach hotels last year, according to his financial disclosures. As of this July, when his sole employer was the Wyndham Garden South Beach, he earned $14,490.

The last FEC report he filed for the monthly period ending July 25 showed he spent $11,262 and spent $10,440 to pay for the state fee to qualify for the ballot in the newly drawn congressional District 26 primary race, which stretches from Kendall to Key West.

That left about $822 in expenditures — none of which includes Rapid Mail — during his last report, which showed he had just $120.97 remaining in his campaign account.

If Sternad’s campaign raised funds over $1,000 after July 25 — including loans — he would have had to file a notice with the FEC within 48 hours of receiving the contribution.

He filed no 48-hour reports, FEC officials said Wednesday.

Knowingly and willfully filing false federal paperwork can carry a five-year federal prison sentence. “The use of surreptitious means, such as cash, conduits, or false documentation, to conceal” a campaign contribution or expenditure is also a felony, according to the FEC.

However, the FEC often handles campaign finance violations as civil infractions. The FEC initiates most investigations only after someone files a complaint. None has been filed.

When asked by The Herald how he could afford all of his mailers, Sternad responded via email: “Kiss my ‘lily-white’ ass.”

The “lily white” line was a reference to a Miami Herald Naked Politics blog posting that noted Sternad appeared to disguise his race on mailers featuring President Obama, Martin Luther King and the Bullards, a family of Miami-Dade black politicians. Political observers speculated that Sternad scratched his first name, Justin, and used his middle name, Lamar, in an effort to appear more African American to unwitting voters.

Ana Alliegro, who Sternad said was running his campaign, couldn’t be reached by phone but declined comment when reached through her Twitter account. She doesn’t appear on Sternad’s FEC reports.

Of the six Rapid Mail pieces purchased by Sternad, one targeted Garcia’s divorce, falsely alleging Garcia left his wife during her bout with cancer. She contributed to her ex-husband’s campaign and also hosted a fundraiser for him. Other mailers targeted immigration hardliners and environmentalists.

The effort paid off for Sternad, a political unknown who has never run before for public office or contributed to state or federal candidates, records show. He earned nearly 11 percent of the vote on Tuesday, behind Gloria Romero Roses and Garcia, who pulled in 53 percent of the vote.

Gus Marin, the last-place finisher in the congressional primary contest, said he suspected Sternad of being a Rivera plant when the political neophyte contacted him with technical question about campaign mailers.

At Rapid Mail, Borrero explained that he receives the target zip codes from campaigns, prices out the postage and adds the cost of mailings to come up with a figure. He then provides the candidate or campaign with an invoice.

In Sternad’s case, Borrero declined to show El Nuevo Herald the invoices.

“I would prefer you get them from Lamar,” Borrero said.

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