If the feds are going to pursue an election conspiracy case against former U.S. Rep. David Rivera, a courtroom drama that played out Monday could hasten their timetable.
Monday was the day that a federal judge was supposed to sentence Justin Sternad, a former congressional candidate whose Democratic primary campaign was allegedly orchestrated behind the scenes by Rivera and his friend, Ana Alliegro. Sternad pleaded guilty to breaking election laws and has cooperated, and a prosecutor was set to recommend cutting his proposed one-year sentence in half.
But U.S. District Judge Robin Rosenbaum delayed sentencing until Sept. 23, after asking Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Mulvihill what other cases Sternad has helped the feds make. The prosecutor did not want to publicly disclose that information, so both sides had a private conversation with the judge before she delayed the proceeding. Neither Rivera nor Alliegro was publicly mentioned.
In court, Sternad’s lawyer, Enrique “Rick” Yabor told the judge he would need another 90 days to establish the level of his client’s cooperation with the government.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Presumably, that would give prosecutors enough time to act and provide the best proof of Sternad’s help: the arrest of Alliegro or Rivera.
Both have denied any wrongdoing.
If they were to be charged, however, the U.S. attorney’s office and FBI likely would first arrest Alliegro, because she would have to “flip’’ against Rivera to make the case against him. Alliegro, who worked with Sternad on his congressional campaign, is living in Nicaragua. The FBI would have to obtain the cooperation of authorities there to bring her back to South Florida.
Sternad, a political newcomer who became a key FBI witness in the case against Rivera and Alliegro, does not implicate the pair in a court filing in which he seeks a probationary sentence. But his lawyer, in the filing, emphasizes Sternad’s minor role in the suspected plot by Rivera and Alliegro to undermine the Democratic bid of the congressman’s eventual rival, Joe Garcia, who beat Rivera in the 2012 general election.
“Justin Sternad is not a bad guy,” Yabor wrote in court papers.
“Justin Sternad was merely a pawn, being used by others, in an attempt to have another candidate obtain an advantage over another,” Yabor wrote. “Mr. Sternad was decidedly not in control of what was happening in his campaign.”
In March, Sternad, 36, of Cutler Bay, pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate the Federal Election Campaign Act, accepting illegal campaign contributions and making a false statement.
In the filing before his sentencing, Sternad’s lawyer wrote that his client “decided, on his own, to run” in the 26th District congressional race because he wanted “to improve his financial position and to have his wife and five children feel proud of him.”
Sternad, who made $12 an hour at a Miami Beach hotel, had no money for the campaign, but thought he could obtain the necessary signatures to qualify as a candidate. He soon discovered that goal was impossible.
In April 2012, “an unindicted co-conspirator called and left a message for” him, Yabor wrote, without identifying the person by name in the court papers. That person was Alliegro.
“Justin Sternad will tell you that if he could go back in time, the one thing he would do is never return that call,” Yabor wrote. “In just a matter of a short time, Justin Sternad, a hotel night desk clerk, was involved way over his head in a congressional election.”
The FBI launched its investigation last year after campaign vendors told the Miami Herald/El Nuevo Herald that Alliegro and Rivera helped steer tens of thousands of dollars in unreported cash and checks to Sternad’s campaign for 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 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 had never run for office, Sternad didn’t appear to have the background to produce such sophisticated campaign work.
Last week, Sternad said in an interview on America TeVe that he believed Rivera was part of the conspiracy.
Sternad, however, said he had no direct knowledge of Rivera’s role and suggested that Alliegro had far more to do with the criminal effort to underwrite his campaign.
But campaign vendors hired by Sternad told the newspapers last year that both Rivera and Alliegro were involved in Sternad’s race.