Ana Alliegro had just surrendered her passport to the FBI and was told by her attorney she faced jail time for her alleged role in a campaign-finance conspiracy tied to former Congressman David Rivera.
Alliegro didn’t stick around.
Along with “another individual,” a federal prosecutor said Friday, Alliegro fled the United States last fall by hopping on a flight to Texas, boarding a Greyhound Bus to Mexico — where a U.S. passport isn’t needed for entry — and then flying to her Central America hideout.
“The next thing we know, she’s back in Nicaragua,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas J. Mulvihill said Friday in federal court. “Instead of coming to the FBI as she promised, she flees the country.”
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
It marked the second time Alliegro had fled for Nicaragua, a place she had not been to before and a country that had no formal extradition treaty with the United States regarding the alleged crimes.
United States Magistrate Judge Alicia M. Otazo-Reyes found the evidence compelling, declaring Alliegro a “flight risk” who should stay in jail until her trial or until the government no longer argues that she’ll skip town if released on bond.
“I note that the defendant left once and then left again. That’s two times,” Otazo-Reyes said, citing the “strength of evidence” in the case against Alliegro.
Alliegro’s new attorney, John Bergendahl, suggested his client didn’t really flee. He said she could be found on social media, didn’t change her name and was in contact with the U.S. embassy in Nicaragua.
Bergendahl portrayed Alliegro as the victim of a “media firestorm.”
“Ms. Alliegro was stalked by the press,” Bergendahl said, adding that she also had to deal with a real stalker before she left town.
Alliegro was arrested by Nicaraguan authorities and expelled in early March. At the time, Nicaraguan police found a second passport, one she said she lost, in her possession. And she was seeking yet another passport, Mulvihill said.
Alliegro has been in jail ever since on four election-related charges stemming from $82,000 in illegal campaign contributions to unknown congressional candidate Justin Lamar Sternad.
Sternad appeared to be doing Rivera’s dirty work by attacking Democrat Joe Garcia in the 2012 primary race for Congressional District 26. Rivera has denied wrongdoing.
Garcia beat Sternad in the four-person primary and bested Rivera in the general election.
By that point, Sternad had pleaded guilty to breaking federal campaign-finance laws and lying about it. He is cooperating with prosecutors and has identified Alliegro as the person who handled the illegal money for him.
Alliegro, 44, faces charges of helping Sternad make false statements on his campaign reports and of making illegal contributions well in excess of federal campaign limits. If convicted, she faces up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 for each count.
Alliegro’s defense team, however, said she faced a maximum 18 months in jail and might have to do as little as six months. Mulvihill said a judge would make that determination if she’s convicted.
Mulvihill pointed out that at least five other witnesses in the case have identified Alliegro as participating in the conspiracy, that Alliegro had provided evidence showing she helped handle some of the money and that evidence found on Alliegro’s computer and smartphone show her role.
Mulvihill wouldn’t say if Rivera was the other “individual” who left with Alliegro the second time.
But the prosecutor dropped clues about the person’s identity, noting the “co-conspirator” had helped design Sternad’s mailers with her, helped funnel money to the campaign and helped support her financially while she lived in Nicaragua.
Also, while Sternad was working as a Miami Beach hotel desk clerk, someone else made two deposits of $5,000 and $5,500 in his bank account at separate branches in Washington.
“Money was one commodity that Mr. Sternad did not have,” Mulvihill said, noting Sternad earned $14.50 an hour, had a bankruptcy in his past, was supporting five children and was receiving food stamps.
Sternad was also taking the bus to work.
“That’s where the defendant, Ms. Alliegro, stepped in,” Mulvihill said. He said she helped rent Sternad a car and arranged payments to get magnetic campaign stickers affixed to it.
Alliegro first left the United States just before she was supposed to meet with the FBI and Mulvihill in 2012. Just before that meeting, Alliegro was arrested on charges of driving on a suspended driver license and not showing up to court.
Through her attorney at the time, Mauricio Padilla, she arranged to sit down with the investigators without having to go before a grand jury.
But on the day of the appointment, Alliegro fled to Nicaragua instead.
“The FBI was waiting there. I was waiting there. Her attorney was waiting there. The only person who didn’t show was her,” Mulvihill said.
A year later, Alliegro returned. This time, she met with prosecutors and gave them information about the case. She gave her passport to the FBI, Mulvihill said.
But Padilla had told her she was facing jail time for what she did, and Alliegro left town before a second scheduled meeting.
“The only reason you turn over your passport is to restrain your travel,” Mulvihill said.
But Bergendahl said she shouldn’t be punished for traveling. “She had an absolute constitutional right to go where she wanted whenever she wanted,” he said.
In seeking pre-trial release, Alliegro described her time in Nicaragua as a short “vacation.”
But her arrest was no holiday. On a request from the U.S. embassy, Nicaraguan police arrested her and detained her for four days in a lockup that Bergendahl described as an “absolutely horrific situation.”
Alliegro was then paraded in front of local media and handed over the FBI on her birthday, March 7, which happened to be a Friday, guaranteeing she wouldn’t have a first-appearance hearing until the weekend was over.
“She was in very rough shape physically and emotionally,” Bergendahl said.
Bergendahl also pointed out the United States had pulled elections shenanigans in other countries: “This is nothing the United States has not engaged in in the last 40 years.”
But Mulvihill said Alliegro’s case was serious. He pointed out that she worked in politics for years and once almost won a race for the state Legislature. He said the court should note “the character of this person to subvert the process” in a race for one of the highest offices in the federal system.
“This is not dog catcher,” Mulvihill said. “This is the 26th Congressional District.”