Miami-Dade County

Federal judge calls out David Rivera, sentences Ana Alliegro to six months of house arrest

Before David Rivera’s confidante was sentenced in a campaign-finance scheme on Wednesday, a federal judge had some advice from the bench for the former Miami congressman: Act like a man.

“Some people would call it chivalry, some people call it sexism — that the man should come forward and not let the woman do time on his behalf,” said U.S. District Judge Robert Scola, who gave Rivera’s friend, Ana Alliegro, a one-year sentence split between six months she had already spent in jail and six months of house arrest.

Alliegro, who will also be on probation for two years, was released from custody a couple of hours later. She walked out of the downtown federal detention center alone, wearing brown prison garb, and tried to find the way on foot to her defense attorneys’ office.

She wouldn’t talk about Rivera, though she would be the key witness if prosecutors charge the Republican with the same crime. When asked by reporters why she stood by him for so long, Alliegro said: “It’s just the way I am.”

“I’m enjoying the weather, and I’m just looking forward to my future,” she said. “I intend to be a good member of society.”

The judge could have given Alliegro a stiffer sentence but suggested he was being lenient because she wasn’t acting by herself, in “rogue” fashion, and instead was a pawn in what federal prosecutors say was Rivera’s conspiracy.

“In some ways, allowing one of their underlings to take the blame — even though she is partly to blame — without coming forward, is something to consider,” Scola said.

Providing a rare, unvarnished glimpse into the mind of a federal judge, Scola indicated he believes the version of events presented by prosecutors: that then-Rep. Rivera used Alliegro to secretly steer about $81,000 to a ringer Democratic candidate named Justin Lamar Sternad, who bashed Rivera rival Joe Garcia in a 2012 Democratic primary for Florida’s 26th congressional district.

Rivera continued to deny wrongdoing in a three-sentence statement Wednesday that was almost identical to one he issued last month.

“What the federal government has done to Ana Alliegro is unheard of,” he said. “I’m sure Ana is innocent and only took this step to end the mistreatment and pressures from the government. I remain convinced of her innocence.”

He had repeatedly denied that he was under investigation — until Alliegro admitted guilt in August, and Scola forced prosecutors to name Rivera in open court.

The judge did so again Wednesday. He referred to “the candidate” — which prompted Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas J. Mulvihill to clarify that the only candidate the prosecution had mentioned was Sternad.

“That’s not the candidate I’m talking about,” Scola said, prompting chuckles in the courtroom. “She wasn’t trying to help Mr. Sternad, she was trying to help Mr. Rivera. Is that true?”

Mulvihill responded that U.S. Justice Department policy typically prohibits identifying conspirators who haven’t been indicted, to avoid vilifying them without offering them an opportunity to defend themselves.

Scola said he wasn’t trying to “impugn” Rivera — just trying to figure out, for sentencing purposes, if Alliegro was working alone or doing Rivera’s bidding.

“She’s done harm to Mr. Rivera if she did it rogue,” Scola said. “To me, that puts her in a much different light. Now, if she and Mr. Rivera together decided that this is what we’re going to do to help Mr. Rivera, that’s still wrong, that’s still bad, but I would look at it a different way. If she also had a personal relationship, that figured into why she was doing things — and why she’s in jail and he’s not.”

Of Rivera, he added: “I think he knows how to give a press conference or talk to people and say, look, this is what really happened, and I don’t want this poor woman to be in jail on my behalf. No one prevented him from saying that.

“I want to give the best sentence, the most fair sentence, to her and to our community, and I want to know exactly as much as I can about what was really going on here,” Scola said. “I’m not asking these questions out of my prurient interest or to defame him.”

Mulvihill said Alliegro has spoken twice to prosecutors since pleading guilty.

“Ms. Alliegro has told us who, in fact, she was working with, and she has told us it was David Rivera” who directed her to contact Sternad and provided the funds, Mulvihill said.

One of her defense attorneys, John Bergendahl, later said Alliegro’s role was effectively to act “as a conduit” between Rivera and Sternad.

“Ms. Alliegro had a personal and professional situation with the other candidate,” Bergendahl said, referring to Rivera. He said her cooperation with the government would continue.

Like Rivera, Alliegro had long denied she was under investigation as well. But she changed her tune as her trial drew near. At a routine pre-trial court appearance last month, she switched her plea to guilty, avoiding trial altogether.

“Last time I was here, I stepped up and took responsibility for what I did. And what I did was wrong,” Alliegro told the judge Wednesday. “I really do feel bad for what I’ve done. I’ve tainted the process, and I owe voters and the state of Florida a huge apology.”

Mulvihill, the prosecutor, said that, though the case doesn’t involve millions of dollars, it points to fraud greater than mere finance.

“We’re talking about something that affects the very fabric of our society: trust in the governmental processes, the democratic processes,” Mulvihill said.

“Who became the victims of that? The voters,” he added. “All of the voters were basically defrauded, defrauded of the right to vote intelligently.”

Court records and testimony indicate Alliegro has told authorities that Rivera not only set the conspiracy in motion but also helped her flee the country to Nicaragua when she was supposed to cooperate with prosecutors instead.

In March, Alliegro was informally extradited to the United States. She has been in jail ever since.

After her sentencing Wednesday, Alliegro turned to her parents, daughter, aunt and uncle seated in the courtroom. She waved and blew them a kiss.

Her father, Anselmo Alliegro, later said that Rivera has been telephoning him. But, he said, Rivera needs to take responsibility for his actions.

“He says he’s concerned about her well-being,” the elder Alliegro said.

Ana Alliegro is the second conviction in the case. Her co-conspirator, no-name former Democratic candidate Justin Lamar Sternad, pleaded guilty in 2013 to accepting the illegal campaign contributions and making false statements about them when he ran in the 2012 primary against Garcia and others.

Garcia won that race and went on to wallop the scandal-plagued Rivera in the general election. Federal investigators, however, are now examining whether Garcia’s former top consultant and chief of staff, Jeffrey Garcia, no relation, helped prop up yet another ringer candidate in the 2010 Republican primary, in what appears to be a precursor to Sternad’s case.

Congressman Garcia has denied wrongdoing or knowledge of the crime and pledged to cooperate with prosecutors. No witnesses have said he’s culpable, either — a stark contrast to Rivera’s case, in which two campaign vendors told the Miami Herald/el Nuevo Herald that the Republican was involved in the 2012 campaign-finance scheme from the start. Based on the Herald reports, the FBI launched its investigation.

With the two convictions and what appears to be a wealth of evidence and testimony against Rivera, Miami’s political and legal worlds have been abuzz with the prospect of Rivera’s imminent indictment.

But Rivera has survived a prior federal investigation and a separate state investigation into his finances. Neither resulted in an indictment. A Tallahassee judge recently sided with state ethics commission prosecutors and found that Rivera broke Florida ethics laws over how he managed campaign and taxpayer money as a state legislator.

Rivera is appealing. The Florida Commission on Ethics, which has yet to rule on the case, has scheduled a hearing on Friday.

But voters have rendered their verdict.

Rivera tried to mount a comeback to run against Garcia this year. Yet the one-time political power broker, nagged by scandal and his repeated misstatements reported in the press, came in fourth place in a five-way GOP primary on Aug. 26.

Rivera received just 2,209 votes. That’s 647 fewer than Sternad received just two years prior, when his campaign was propped up by illegal money.

Miami Herald photographer Walter Michot and staff writer Jay Weaver contributed to this report.