Miami-Dade County

Former congressman claims vindication after Miami judge dismisses ringer lawsuit

Former Congressman David Rivera claimed vindication Thursday after a judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by the Federal Election Commission.
Former Congressman David Rivera claimed vindication Thursday after a judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by the Federal Election Commission. Miami Herald file

A Miami judge on Thursday dismissed a Federal Election Commission lawsuit against former congressman David Rivera alleging that he secretly and illegally financed a ringer candidate’s campaign in a Democratic primary six years ago in order to damage his likely opponent.

Judge Marcia Cooke tossed out the 2017 complaint, which stemmed from six-year-old allegations first documented in the Miami Herald that Rivera funneled at least $70,000 in campaign money to a novice political candidate running against then-challenger Joe Garcia. Garcia ultimately won the primary and general elections in Florida’s 26th congressional district, and the candidate who received the undisclosed money, Justin Lamar Sternad, later pleaded guilty to breaking election laws.

A political operative and former girlfriend of Rivera’s also pleaded guilty to her role in the scheme and said she acted as a go-between for Rivera and Sternad, who accepted tens of thousands of dollars in hush-hush advertising and political services that he listed on campaign finance forms as self-loans.

But Rivera has always denied any wrongdoing, and was not charged by the U.S. Attorney’s office. After the statute of limitations ran out, the FEC filed a civil action against Rivera, arguing that he’d broken campaign finance laws prohibiting secret donations. The elections watchdog was pursuing nearly $500,000 in fines, but Rivera argued that if anyone broke election law in the alleged scheme, it was Sternad.

Cooke’s decision to dismiss the case was not based on any arguments of whether Rivera engaged in the alleged scheme, but predicated on a recent court ruling in Utah that found that the law cited by the federal agency in bringing its case against Rivera was fatally flawed. Regardless, Rivera claimed vindication Thursday, slamming the U.S. Attorney who pursued his criminal case and blasting the journalists whose reporting spurred federal investigations into the money flowing into Sternad’s campaign.

“After an eight-year witch hunt from a corrupt prosecutor.... the truth behind these baseless accusations is finally revealed,” Rivera said. “I always knew these false accusations would be exposed as politically motivated fake news.

”The case may not be over. It’s common for plaintiffs to amend complaints after a dismissal if they can find a way to keep their lawsuit alive. A spokeswoman for the FEC declined to comment on the agency’s next steps.

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