Facing allegations that he illegally spent nearly $70,000 funding a ringer candidate’s campaign against a Democratic opponent, former Miami congressman David Rivera asked a judge Wednesday to toss a federal elections lawsuit, saying that if anybody broke the law it was the guy who took the money.
Rivera, in a motion to dismiss, told Judge Robert Scola that even if he did secretly spend $69,426.20 backing the campaign of a political neophyte in a scheme to siphon votes away from a more threatening opponent, that wouldn’t have broken any federal election laws. Rather, Rivera — who denies the allegations — argued it would have been Justin Lamar Sternad, the 2012 primary opponent for Joe Garcia, who violated elections laws by failing to report the money as an “in-kind” contribution.
“The candidate was allegedly informed that the ‘in-kind’ contributions were being made by Rivera, but it was the candidate who chose not to disclose Mr. Rivera as the source of the in-kind contribution,” wrote Rivera’s attorney, Roy Kahn. “The failure to properly disclose the true facts on his campaign disclosure forms falls on the shoulders of the candidate, not the donor.”
Kahn said the federal regulations cited by the Federal Election Commission in its lawsuit bar a person from contributing to a campaign in another person’s name, but don’t stop anyone from making direct payments to vendors on behalf of a campaign.
“Although the complaint states that Mr. Rivera did not want his name to appear on the invoices of the vendors, the Sternad campaign was fully aware of the identity of the donor of the in-kind contributions,” the motion to dismiss states. “Had the candidate, Mr. Sternad, disclosed the true and known source of the contributions made to the vendors, there would not have been any violation of [the Federal Election Campaign Act]. Instead, the candidate, who allegedly knew at the time he filed his campaign disclosure forms that Rivera was the donor, chose to lie about the donation.”
The argument is the first legal defense of any kind offered by Rivera since the Miami Herald revealed in 2012 that the Republican congressman and a GOP political consultant were secretly propping up Sternad against Garcia in order to weaken the Democrat before facing him in a general election.
Sternad, a hotel worker and political neophyte, first reported money from the duo as personal loans to his campaign. He eventually reported $81,486.15 in contributions related to Rivera and Alliegro after the campaign finance scheme was revealed by the Miami Herald.
Alliegro, Rivera’s ex-girlfriend, testified in 2014 that Rivera was the mastermind behind the scheme, which ultimately failed. Garcia would go on to beat the Republican Rivera in the 2012 election to represent Florida’s 26th district in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Sternad and Alliegro, whom Rivera used as his go-between, wound up with federal criminal convictions. Prosecutors chose not to charge Rivera.
But the Federal Election Commission sued Rivera in July, alleging that Rivera paid nearly $70,000 directly to vendors in order to provide graphic design, printing and rapid mail for the Sternad campaign. The FEC has asked Judge Scola to impose $486,000 in civil penalties against Rivera, who is currently campaigning for a 2018 election for Florida House District 105.
Attempts to reach attorneys working the case for the Federal Election Commission Wednesday were unsuccessful.
Miami Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.