The Florida Democratic Party asked the U.S. Justice Department on Thursday to investigate Miami Republican and congressional candidate Carlos Curbelo for failing to disclose clients of his family firm.
Curbelo violated a federal ethics law by running Capitol Gains, the government and public relations firm he founded in 2002, but has kept in his wife’s name since 2009, Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant wrote in a letter to the Justice Department’s public integrity section.
“Mr. Curbelo appears to have knowingly and willfully falsified and failed to report information required to be reported” under the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, Tant wrote. That law requires candidates’ financial interests to be disclosed.
Tant asked the Justice Department to launch an investigation — which could lead to fines or other civil penalties — “or, if and as appropriate, initiate a criminal investigation.”
A spokesman for Curbelo, a Miami-Dade County School Board member who is challenging incumbent U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia, called the Democrats’ complaint “frivolous.”
“As the FBI intensifies its investigation of the scandals surrounding Joe Garcia, this frivolous letter is clearly a desperate attempt to deflect attention from the chronic corruption that Garcia has perpetrated on our community,” Wadi Gaitan, communications director for Curbelo’s campaign, said in a written statement. He added that Curbelo has filed all financial disclosures required of congressional candidates and school board members.
The Miami Herald reported Wednesday that the FBI has stepped up its criminal investigation into Garcia’s 2010 campaign manager over his suspected involvement in secretly propping up a phony tea-party candidate to siphon votes from a Republican rival.
On Thursday, Curbelo’s campaign sent a fundraising appeal to supporters citing the investigation. “Politicians like Joe Garcia seem to be willing to do anything to get elected,” the emailed solicitation said. The men are vying to represent the 26th congressional district, which stretches from Westchester to Key West, a race considered a tossup.
While the timing of Florida Democrats’ complaint seems aimed at blunting the negative publicity on Garcia, Tant’s letter suggests it was not drafted overnight. It cites several 2013 instances in which Curbelo was identified in contributions to federal political campaigns and committees as Capitol Gains’ “owner,” “president” or “principal.” The Herald had published only some of those examples last week.
Curbelo’s occupation was listed as president of Capitol Gains in three donations: $1,000 to Illinois Rep. Rodney Davis, $500 to Miami Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, and $300 to Maverick PAC, which supports young GOP professionals running for office. He was named Capitol Gains’ owner in a $2,500 contribution to Republicans for Immigration Reform, a so-called super PAC. And a $2,600 contribution to his own congressional campaign showed Curbelo as a Capitol Gains principal.
The required candidate financial disclosure form Curbelo filed in 2013 with the U.S. House of Representatives reported the firm as an asset belonging to his wife, Cecilia — not to him — that paid him a salary. She is also listed as the company’s sole owner in Florida incorporation records.
Tant called that information “contradictory.”
Many campaigns and political committees fill out donors’ occupations on their own, without requiring contributors to do so themselves. So in the donations to campaigns other than his own, Curbelo may not have been the one calling himself “president” or “owner.” His campaign referred to him as “principal,” which is more vague.
But Democrats say the discrepancies between how contribution records describe Curbelo and how he describes himself show he is, in practice, the chief of Capitol Gains — and as such should be subject to the disclosure law. The caller ID on Curbelo’s his cell phone appears as “Capitol Gains.” The company website, www.capitolgains.org, features Curbelo’s photo and biography under a section called “The Capitol Team.”
“For someone who obviously runs a lobbying shop, and has said he is the owner of the company, to refuse to disclose his clients, defeats an important objective of the law and frustrates the public interest that provision of the law seeks to promote,” Tant wrote.
Curbelo has acknowledged that his wife hasn’t worked for the firm since their oldest daughter was born — in 2009, the same year Capitol Gains was placed under his wife’s name. That was done on the advice of U.S. Senate attorneys, Curbelo has said. He worked from 2009-10 as state director for Florida Senator George LeMieux.
Curbelo never changed the firm back into his name after being elected to the school board.
“Each family has the right to structure its finances however it pleases, and in 2009 we made this decision when Senate lawyers recommended it,” Curbelo said last week. “We’ve found no reason to change that since then. My commitment is to follow the law and to disclose all of the information that is required by the law.”
He has argued that most of the firm’s clients are common knowledge because Curbelo has been their Spanish-language media spokesman — or, in the case of Malaysian casino giant Genting, their lobbyist. He is no longer registered as Genting’s lobbyist.
Curbelo has been a Hispanic spokesman for former Republican presidential candidates John McCain and Fred Thompson, and for Diaz-Balart and his brother, ex-Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, among others.