Federal prosecutors have circled David Rivera for three years, trying to build a strong enough criminal case to prove the former Miami Republican congressman propped up a ringer candidate in the 2012 election.
They got the ringer, Justin Lamar Sternad, to confess, and sent him to prison. They chased the woman who secretly funneled more than $81,000 to Sternad — Ana Alliegro, Rivera’s ex-girlfriend — to her Nicaragua hideout, and sent her to prison, too. They even got Alliegro, once out of prison, to testify to a grand jury that it was Rivera who had plotted the illegal campaign-finance scheme.
That was almost a year ago. To date, the U.S. attorney’s office in Miami has filed no charges against Rivera — or closed the investigation against him.
“The judge had them name David Rivera as ‘Co-Conspirator A,’ and David Rivera has not been charged,” lamented Alliegro’s father, Anselmo Alliegro. “Nothing seems to be moving in that direction.”
As 2015 draws to a close, prosecutors might choose to wait even longer to resolve the case.
They have until 2017 to file charges, under the federal statute of limitations. And if Rivera’s friend and former housemate Marco Rubio continues to rise in the 2016 Republican presidential race, prosecutors might want to steer clear of the politically charged case, to avoid the appearance of meddling with an election.
U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer, a Democrat, declined to comment for this story. Rivera, whose cellphone voice mail said he is out of the country, did not respond to emailed questions. A Miami Herald reporter asked him at a Republican Party of Florida fundraiser in Orlando last week if he had heard anything from prosecutors. Rivera, who has disputed he’s the target of the investigation, laughed off the question and said no.
It’s Rivera’s continued involvement on the margins of politics, while Rubio’s national profile has grown, that has renewed media attention on the former congressman. Rubio and Rivera served together in the Florida House and for years owned a Tallahassee home together, which they sold in June.
Rivera’s presence at two GOP primary debates, including in Milwaukee two weeks ago, made headlines and forced Rubio’s campaign to deny on both occasions that it had given Rivera a ticket. (Rivera wouldn’t reveal the source either, saying only that he’s cultivated many friends in nearly three decades in politics.)
His presence at the last week’s Florida GOP Statesman’s Dinner, which featured Rubio, did not go unnoticed.
“Ay, there’s David,” sighed a Rubio supporter when Rivera walked in. The supporter turned around to avoid saying hello.
In 2012, the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald linked Rivera to Sternad, a rookie Democratic candidate who during the primary mailed fliers attacking Rivera foe Joe Garcia — though records showed Sternad had barely raised any campaign money. Garcia went on to defeat Rivera in the general election.
Sternad pleaded guilty in 2013 to violating federal election laws and sentenced to 30 days in prison and three months’ house arrest. Alliegro pleaded guilty in 2014 and received a one-year sentence, split between prison and house arrest, for conspiring to finance Sternad’s candidacy with a person identified in court documents as “Co-Conspirator A.” U.S. District Judge Robert Scola forced Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Mulvihill to name Rivera as the co-conspirator twice in open court.
Rivera’s girlfriend on and off for years since 2003, Alliegro didn’t initially cooperate with prosecutors. After she was arrested on a previous driving violation and the feds raided her apartment in 2012, she fled to Granada, Nicaragua — on a ticket purchased by Rivera, she later said. He visited her there at least six times, she told the Herald in February, sometimes entering through Costa Rica to hide his trail. In the small town of Granada, he was known as “Don David.”
After Sternad implicated Alliegro in the case, she returned to Miami in 2013 to meet with prosecutors, who seized her passport. Then Alliegro skipped town for Nicaragua again, using an old passport she said Rivera had stolen from her in an earlier visit, in case it might come in handy. She was eventually arrested in Nicaragua at the request of the U.S. government in March 2014.
The saga has left prosecutors nervous about Alliegro’s credibility and reliability as their main witness, said Jeffrey Sloman, a former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida, who is not involved in the case. Could her testimony and composure hold during cross-examination at trial?
“If they are concerned about her as a witness, but they are not under the gun time-wise with the statute of limitations, what do you do?” said Sloman, who is now in private practice. “You try to shore up the case in some way — either by shoring her up as a witness or shoring up other witnesses.”
If they are concerned about her as a witness, but they are not under the gun time-wise with the statute of limitations, what do you do?
Jeffrey Sloman, a former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida
“The question is, can you independently corroborate her as a witness?” he added. “You can have the worst witness in the world, but if you can corroborate that witness, then you have a fighting chance of winning.”
The campaign vendors have said they cooperated with the feds. And Alliegro, who testified before the grand jury last Dec. 18, has said prosecutors have a pile of other evidence, including emails, credit-card records and a handwritten note from Rivera.
Instead of charging Rivera on the heels of Alliegro’s testimony, prosecutors held off. Asked if he thought the U.S. attorney’s office would have decided whether to charge Rivera by now, Alliegro’s defense attorney, John Bergendahl, wouldn’t say.
“That would have to be a decision of the prosecutor to make,” he said Thursday. “It’s anyone’s guess whether he will or not.”
Defense attorney Rick Yabor, who represented Sternad, said he has not heard a peep from prosecutor Mulvihill since the summer of 2014.
Since then, a different prosecutor concluded a similar case that began after the Rivera investigation. Jeffrey Garcia, a former top political adviser to Joe Garcia, no relation, pleaded guilty in June to financing a sham candidate of his own, Jose Rolando “Roly” Arrojo, against Rivera in 2010. Garcia was sentenced to eight months’ house arrest, two years of probation and a fine. Arrojo received a more lenient sentence.
The Rivera investigation, however, has dragged on — despite Rivera’s assertion last year that he might run for the state House again in 2016.
In a strange twist, Rivera alleged in a bombshell memo made public earlier this year that Mulvihill had a personal conflict. According to Rivera, Mulvihill had tried to use his acquaintance with the then-congressman he was investigating for suspected tax evasion in 2012 to try to get appointed U.S. attorney. Two men mentioned in the memo told the Herald that Rivera’s allegations were a fabrication. The U.S. attorney’s office has called them “completely false.”
Mulvihill’s tax investigation of Rivera went nowhere. And Rivera never faced charges in a separate state case into his campaign and personal finances as a state representative. The Florida ethics commission fined him $58,000, which Rivera has appealed.
But Mulvihill has yet to wrap up his latest Rivera investigation. And after losing two high-profile public-corruption cases in the past 18 months, against the former mayor of Hialeah and the sitting mayor of Miami Lakes, the feds appear nervous — regardless of any political concerns going into 2016, which both Sloman and Yabor flatly dismissed.
“They are always sensitive about indicting an elected official around election time, but he’s not an elected official” anymore, Sloman said. “I would discount any suggestion that they are concerned about Rivera’s friendship with Rubio.”