March 15, 2013

Suspect in David Rivera campaign-finance scandal pleads guilty in court, apologizes outside court

Justin Lamar Sternad admitted he accepted illegal contributions in a Democratic congressional primary race against Joe Garcia, who eventually defeated U.S. David Rivera, R-Miami, for the House seat that stretches from Kendall to Key West.

Justin Lamar Sternad didn’t have to say much Friday when he admitted guilt in a federal case targeting former Miami U.S. Rep. David Rivera.

But Sternad wanted to apologize.

And he wanted to send a message: he’s ready to testify against those who helped lead him and his doomed congressional campaign into the maw of the federal justice system.

“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 of the federal courthouse.

“This is not an excuse, nor do I want this interpreted as an excuse,” Sternad said. “I would now like to publicly apologize to God, my country, my wife, children, family and friends.”

Sternad is scheduled to be back in court May 31 to be sentenced for accepting illegal campaign contributions, conspiracy and making a false statement — the three charges he pleaded guilty to Friday in a 43-minute hearing.

Under sentencing guidelines, Sternad could face at least a year in prison but his lawyer is hoping for far less time because of how cooperative Sternad has been and will be.

Neither Sternad nor federal investigators have publicly mentioned Rivera’s name or the name of the former congresswoman’s friend, Ana Alliegro, who ran Sternad’s campaign. Rivera has denied any wrongdoing; Alliegro has refused comment.

The FBI launched its investigation last year 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 last summer. The cash promoted Sternad’s candidacy as he attacked fellow Democrat, Joe Garcia, a rival of Rivera’s.

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.

A political neophyte and unknown who never ran 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 self-described “Republican bad girl,” 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 Aug. 14 Democratic primary against Garcia and others.

Sternad lost the Aug. 14 Democratic primary to Garcia, who went on to beat Rivera in the Nov. 6 general election.

But by then, the damage was done to Sternad, a blue-collar night-time hotel worker with a family of five and bills to pay on his modest home in Cutler Bay.

Sternad early on said he just wanted to run for Congress to make a difference. He found out how tough it is as an unknown.

Sternad first complained to The Miami Herald that he wasn’t getting coverage. He couldn’t really fundraise. And he struggled to get the signatures needed to qualify for the ballot.

Then, just before the qualifying deadline, the unnamed conspirators deposited $10,500 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.

Sternad’s lawyer, Yabor, maintains that his client might have done wrong, but he was misled and is trying to make amends by accepting responsibility, working with prosecutors and telling the truth.

When a reporter asked about bringing the head of David Rivera, Yabor said, “I don’t know about the head, but I can’t comment on that.”

Will Sternad testify against Rivera?

“That’s up to the Department of Justice,” Yabor said. “If the DOJ says it’s part of his cooperation, then he will ... I’m hoping he walks out of here on sentencing day.”

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