Hidden money. A shadowy candidate. Missing campaign-finance reports.
That’s not just a description of Justin Lamar Sternad’s congressional campaign in 2012, which led to his conviction in federal court.
It also describes the campaign of Jose Rolando “Roly” Arrojo, who like Sternad ran against U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia — but in 2010.
Unlike Sternad, Arrojo has ties to Garcia’s former top adviser, Jeffrey Garcia, who resigned Friday amid an unrelated criminal investigation into fraudulent absentee-ballot requests for the Aug. 14, 2012, Democratic primary.
Like Sternad, Arrojo failed to properly account for more than $10,000 worth of campaign expenditures and at least one mailer.
But Sternad is facing prison time. Arrojo just received a stern letter from the Federal Election Commission for his violations.
Sternad’s lawyer is asking the FBI to investigate — especially now that Garcia’s own campaign is at the center of an elections scandal.
“If my client is going to go through the wringer, let’s apply the law equally,” said Sternad’s lawyer, Enrique “Rick” Yabor, who wrote to the FBI on Monday.
“Why does Arrojo get a pass, while my client faces possible prison time?” Yabor asked. “Who’s getting preferential treatment?”
Arrojo would not discuss his former campaign with a Miami Herald reporter.
A self-described stay-at-home dad, Arrojo has owned his Coral Gables home with his wife since 2005, records show. He was also a Republican at the time.
But when Arrojo filed to run for an open congressional seat in 2010 in a crowded field, he first filed papers to run as a Democrat, then registered as a Tea Party candidate with a Miami Beach address.
Republicans at the time suspected that Arrojo, an unknown, was a ringer candidate posing as a conservative in order to siphon votes away from Republican state Rep. David Rivera, who was running against Garcia and others. Rivera won that race handily.
A Miami Herald investigation at the time showed Arrojo had longstanding ties to Garcia’s campaign manager, Jeffrey Garcia, who is not related to the congressman.
Arrojo and Jeffrey Garcia both went to Belen Jesuit Preparatory School and had owned a failed real-estate investment firm together. Both denied that they had worked together to get Arrojo to run in 2010.
Joe Garcia said he didn’t know Arrojo.
Jeffrey Garcia abruptly resigned as the congressman’s chief of staff on Friday amid an ongoing Miami-Dade State Attorney’s office investigation into about 2,500 absentee ballot requests that were fraudulently submitted in the 2012 race. Monroe County, which is part of Garcia’s district, is now conducting a parallel review.
Jeffrey Garcia has hired attorney Henry Bell, who said it is not clear to him if his client violated the law in the 2012 election. State elections laws require absentee ballots to be submitted by voters or their immediate family members. Violations may be considered third-degree felony fraud. Using a person’s identifying information — as required by ballot requests — may be considered a more serious, first-degree felony.
“That he accepted responsibility and resigned his position with the congressman doesn’t necessarily mean he broke the law,” Bell said.
Investigators raided the homes of two campaign workers, including a current Joe Garcia aide who was placed on unpaid administrative leave Monday.
None of the fraudulently requested absentee ballots appears to have been cast, however. And Joe Garcia said he was unaware of his campaign’s potential role in the scam until Friday, after the raids were under way.
Still, Jeffrey Garcia’s potential involvement in illegal campaign activity has reinvigorated Republicans’ call to examine his relationship with Arrojo’s campaign in 2010.
At the time, two Republicans filed complaints with the Federal Election Commission about Arrojo’s campaign finances.
The FEC found that Arrojo never filed quarterly campaign-finance reports, which he was required to do because he spent more than $5,000. Arrojo spent $10,440 to qualify for the ballot and spent an undetermined amount of money on at least one mailer.
Court records indicate his Coral Gables home was in foreclosure at the time he spent the money to qualify for the ballot. Also, at the time, Arrojo was in arrears on his taxes, according to a recent tax-lien document unearthed by Yabor. Court records show Arrojo filed for bankruptcy in February of this year, but the court dismissed the case in April.
Despite Arrojo’s financial troubles and irregular reports, the FEC declined to do much more than send him a letter telling him not to break the rules again.
“In light of the limited scope of the reporting violations,” the FEC wrote in a June 21, 2011, report, “further enforcement action does not appear to be warranted.”
Months later, a new election was under way that ultimately pitted Rivera and Garcia against each other in the newly drawn Congressional District 26 that stretches from Key West to central Miami-Dade County.
And a new unknown threw his hat in the ring: Sternad.
Like Arrojo, Sternad did not properly account for his campaign finances. And like Arrojo, Sternad drew attention to himself by sending out mailers.
But unlike Arrojo, the volume of Sternad’s mailers was large. He sent out at least a dozen. He also told the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald that Rivera’s longtime friend, Ana Sol Alliegro, was running his campaign.
Two campaign vendors used by Sternad also told the Herald that Rivera and Alliegro were behind Sternad’s campaign. And one, Rapid Mail & Computer Service owner John Borrero, said Alliegro helped steer stacks of cash to Sternad’s campaign. Rivera and Alliegro deny wrongdoing.
Rivera was already under federal criminal investigation in a separate matter involving a secret $500,000 payment from a Miami dog track that he initially failed to disclose.
Rivera narrowly avoided a host of state criminal charges that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement wanted to file against him, but the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office declined to press charges because the statutes were vague or the statute of limitations had expired.
After The Herald and El Nuevo Herald uncovered Sternad’s suspect campaign filings, the FBI began investigating that case as well.
Garcia soundly defeated Rivera amid the investigation and, months later, Sternad pleaded guilty to accepting $81,486 in illegal payments from unnamed co-conspirators, including two checks that paid for Sternad’s ballot-qualifying fee.
That federal investigation continues, as does the state attorney’s investigation
But now Sternad’s lawyer says a third investigation, this one examining Arrojo, should take place.
“Maybe he did nothing wrong, that he’s completely innocent,” Yabor said. “But it looks like he did a lot of the things my client did. Fair is fair.”