Feds intensify investigation on Rep. Joe Garcia’s former campaign manager

Federal prosecutors are intensifying their criminal investigation of U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia’s former campaign manager and chief of staff who’s suspected of helping fund a phony tea-party candidate to siphon votes from a Republican rival in 2010.

Prosecutors and a grand jury have issued at least four subpoenas in the case — two this year — and at least one witness has testified that Jeffrey Garcia was behind the alleged scheme to secretly prop up the shadow candidate, a former friend and business partner named Roly Arrojo.

Jeffrey Garcia, who is no relation to the Miami Democratic congressman, has long denied wrongdoing but declined to comment Wednesday through his attorney. Arrojo, too, had denied wrongdoing and couldn’t be reached for comment.

“Congressman Garcia has done nothing wrong. We’ve never been told that he’s the target of any investigation,” David O. Markus, a criminal defense attorney hired by Garcia’s campaign, said in a written statement. “This is old news.”

Not to prosecutors, who this week sat down with the congressman’s former spokesman, Giancarlo Sopo, the Miami Herald has learned.

Sopo, who is considered a witness, declined to comment, although a source close to the investigation indicated that he explained his role in the unsuccessful 2010 campaign — as well as the conversations he had with Jeffrey Garcia in 2012 about Arrojo, who failed to report thousands of dollars in campaign expenses, including mailers.

Federal law prohibits candidates from hiding campaign contributions, requires candidates to accurately report their finances and also generally bars campaigns from certain types of secret coordination.

Another Garcia campaign worker, 2010 fundraiser Courtney Whitney, was subpoenaed in February as a witness. Whitney also declined to comment, but a source close to the investigation indicated she testified about the structure of the campaign.

Whitney raised money for the campaign and Jeffrey Garcia spent it. She now works as a fundraiser for U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, of Weston, the Democratic National Committee chairwoman. The congresswoman, who is not part of the Garcia investigation, said through a spokesman that she only learned Wednesday of the subpoena.

While Joe Garcia’s campaign has sought to downplay news of the subpoenas, Republican challenger Carlos Curbelo has made the Arrojo case — and Jeffrey Garcia — central to his race against the incumbent. The election is in November.

“Joe Garcia is corrupt,” Curbelo said last week at a news conference that drew attention to the federal investigation of the 2010 race and a 2012 state investigation into Jeffrey Garcia for attempted absentee-ballot request fraud. By then, Jeffrey Garcia was the congressman’s chief of staff.

Though no votes were stolen, Garcia pleaded guilty and served 65 days in jail. Cases remain open against Sopo and another ex-staffer, John Estes, both of whom say they were unwitting recruits to Jeffrey Garcia’s plot.

Joe Garcia said he had no knowledge of that scheme, either, and called Curbelo’s attacks a desperate way to deflect attention from Curbelo’s refusal to disclose clients of his consulting company, which is listed in his wife’s name.

Garcia has repeatedly denied being a target of the federal investigation.

“I have always cooperated with the authorities and will continue to do so as I have absolutely nothing to hide,” Garcia said in a written statement Wednesday.

Last week, Curbelo won a crowded Republican primary in which he bested former Congressman David Rivera, whom Garcia defeated in 2012. Garcia lost to Rivera amid the controversy involving Arrojo in 2010.

Two years later, during the 2012 race, Rivera became the target of a federal investigation for allegedly masterminding a scheme to steer more than $81,000 to prop up yet another candidate. That case has resulted in two federal convictions of Justin Lamar Sternad and his adviser, Ana Alliegro, a former Rivera ally.

All three investigations — the two involving Jeffrey Garcia and the other related to Rivera — stemmed from investigative reporting by the Herald and El Nuevo Herald.

During the 2010 race, Arrojo’s campaign stood out as suspicious from the start.

When Arrojo filed to run for the open congressional seat in 2010, he first filed papers to run as a Democrat even though he had once been a Republican. Then, Arrojo registered as a Tea Party candidate with a Miami Beach address — even though he owned a home in Coral Gables.

The Herald revealed that Arrojo had ties to Jeffrey Garcia, who was then Joe Garcia’s campaign manager.

In 2005, the two men had been managing members of a Miami Beach-based real-estate management and procurement company named Project Mercury. Jeffrey Garcia also owned property from 2005 to 2010 in the city of Miami with Arrojo and Arrojo’s wife.

The men, who knew each other from Belen Jesuit Preparatory School, said their real-estate venture soured and denied that Garcia put up Arrojo to run as a ringer candidate.

But Arrojo barely campaigned — and members of the formal Florida Tea Party had no knowledge of, or any ties to, his candidacy.

Arrojo was also financially strapped, records indicated, but he somehow was able to pay the $10,440 qualifying fee. He then appeared to spend thousands of dollars on mailers.

A Herald investigation later revealed that some of the mailers were printed by a shop, Image Plus Graphics, that had longstanding ties to Jeffrey Garcia. Its records were subpoenaed by the FBI after the Herald linked them to Garcia.

The print shop owner at the time said a Coral Springs political consultant named Michael Kaplan placed the orders for the job involving Arrojo.

Kaplan, through his Checkmate Consulting company, earned more than $140,000 in direct-mail work through the Garcia campaign.

Kaplan told the Herald last year that he told the FBI that Jeffrey Garcia was behind the Arrojo mailers.

By then, two Republicans had already filed complaints with the Federal Elections Commission, which cited Arrojo for failing to file quarterly campaign-finance reports, which he was required to do because he spent more than $5,000.

Miami-Dade Republicans were outraged that Arrojo wasn’t facing the prospect of criminal charges or prison time — while Sternad and Alliegro were. Rivera has not been charged with wrongdoing.

Sternad’s lawyer, Rick Yabor, openly asked the U.S. Attorney’s Office to investigate Arrojo just as aggressively.

“It looks like he did a lot of the things my client did,” Yabor said. “Fair is fair.”