Politics

Feds charge ex-congressional chief of staff with secretly funding 2010 ringer candidate

Jeffrey Garcia pleaded guilty to orchestrating an online absentee-ballot request scheme in 2013.
Jeffrey Garcia pleaded guilty to orchestrating an online absentee-ballot request scheme in 2013. POOL PHOTO

Federal prosecutors on Friday accused former Miami Democratic Rep. Joe Garcia’s ex-chief of staff of secretly financing a ringer tea-party candidate in 2010 to draw votes away from a Republican rival — an illegal scheme that appeared to inspire a more serious copycat case two years later.

Jeffrey Garcia was charged with conspiracy to give a campaign contribution of less than $25,000, a misdemeanor offense. Prosecutors say Garcia, no relation to the former congressman, put up the $10,440 qualifying fee for the shadow candidate, Jose Rolando “Roly” Arrojo, to pose as another challenger to David Rivera.

Arrojo was also charged Friday with the same misdemeanor.

Rivera is suspected of following a similar playbook in 2012 to prop up a Democratic candidate against Joe Garcia. Rivera has not been charged, although two others in that case — the straw candidate and Rivera’s ex-girlfriend — were convicted.

Jeffrey Garcia himself confessed his actions to prosecutors three years after the fact, his attorney said. The charge, filed in U.S. District Court, paves the way for Garcia, 42, to surrender to authorities next week and then plead guilty in the hope of receiving a light sentence. The same outcome is likely for Arrojo, 41.

Jeffrey Garcia already has a criminal record: He served 65 days in Miami-Dade County jail in 2013 after pleading guilty to state charges that he unlawfully submitted online absentee-ballot requests for unsuspecting voters in the 2012 congressional election. No ballots were sent out, so no votes were stolen.

After accepting responsibility in that case, Garcia approached federal prosecutors to fess up about his role in the 2010 campaign, Garcia’s attorney, Henry Bell, said in a statement Friday.

“Jeff confessed because he is a good person who made an error in the heat of competitive politics, and he wanted to both make right what he did and put this matter behind him,” Bell said. “Jeff is sorry and hopes that those affected by this matter accept his apology.”

Arrojo’s defense attorney said that his client was a longtime friend of Garcia’s before the political consultant approached him to be a straw candidate.

Attorney Robert M. Perez said that Arrojo was not a political person but agreed to play the role as a favor to his friend, without realizing the ramifications — potential campaign-finance violations.

“He was very trusting of a friend he has known for many years,” Perez said. “And that’s why he’s in the position he’s in today.”

“My client trusted his friend, but once he started receiving Federal Election Commission complaints he should have taken action and did not,” Perez added. “For that he accepts responsibility and is sorry for the damage he caused.”

According to prosecutors, the illegal campaign financing began on April 27, 2010, when Jeffrey Garcia wrote two checks — for $5,500 and $5,000 —from the bank account of his consulting firm, Palm Media. He made them payable to “cash.”

The next day, Arrojo deposited both checks in his personal bank account. He then cut himself a $10,500 check, payable to “Roly Arrojo for Congress,” from his personal account to his congressional account, to pay the $10,440 qualification fee that same day to the Florida Division of Elections.

Garcia then “participated” in creating fliers for Arrojo in October 2010, according to the charging document filed Friday by the feds. When the Federal Election Commission started asking questions in November and December of 2010, Garcia “submitted false statements to the FEC concerning his identity and the contributions to the Roly Arrojo for Congress Committee.”

The money had come from $12,000 that Jeffrey Garcia, through Palm Media, drew from Joe Garcia’s congressional campaign account.

The former congressman, identified in the charging document as “Candidate A,” has long denied any involvement and has not been charged.

“We trust that this closes this very old story,” his attorney, David O. Markus, said Friday. “We don’t expect anything further to come out of this as Joe did nothing wrong.”

The scale of the case pales in comparison to the one surrounding Rivera, the Republican who preceded Joe Garcia in Congress. Rivera’s ex-girlfriend, Ana Alliegro, told a grand jury that he masterminded a scheme that secretly funneled more than $81,000 to the straw candidacy of Democrat Justin Lamar Sternad in 2012. Rivera covered their tracks and helped Alliegro twice escape to Nicaragua, according to Alliegro.

Both Alliegro and Sternad served prison time. Rivera has, for now, avoided a similar fate and maintained his innocence.

It was Sternad’s defense attorney, Rick Yabor, who pushed the feds to investigate Arrojo.

“Just like Mr. Sternad, I’m glad to see that Mr. [Jeffrey] Garcia stepped forward and admitted his illegal activity. It’s not an easy thing to do,” Yabor said. “Hopefully others in this case and in Sternad’s case will likewise step forward and limit their criminal liability.”

The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald revealed two years ago that campaign fliers purportedly funded by Roly Arrojo were printed by a shop with established ties to Jeffrey Garcia.

The owner of Image Plus Graphics, whose records were subpoenaed by the FBI, said a political consultant named Michael Kaplan had ordered the mailers. Kaplan, whose Checkmate Consulting company had worked for the Joe Garcia campaign, said he told the FBI that Jeffrey Garcia was behind the order.

“Jeff asked me to do a simple print job for him. I wasn’t aware there was any issue with it,” Kaplan, a consultant for Dynamic Strategies, told the Herald in September 2013. “I am helping [the FBI] and provided all the information requested to help the investigation.”

Federal elections law requires candidates to disclose the source of most financial contributions, and prohibits certain coordination between campaigns.

The Herald had found in 2010 that Arrojo had known Garcia for years. They had been students at the same time at Belen Jesuit Preparatory School and ventured into real estate together, co-managing a Miami Beach firm named Project Mercury from 2005-10. The men said that the deal soured and denied that Garcia had put up Arrojo to run as a phony candidate.

But Arrojo’s candidacy was clearly suspicious. He filed first as a Democrat, though he had previously been registered as a Republican. He then switched his affiliation to the tea party, though nobody in the conservative movement knew of him. And, crucially, he sent fliers even though he had raised no money.

Two Republicans complained to the elections commission that Arrojo failed to file campaign-finance reports as required for candidates who spend more than $5,000.

Prosecutors and a grand jury then subpoenaed several former Joe Garcia campaign aides as part of their investigation. Some of them testified last year while Garcia was running for reelection.

He lost to Republican Carlos Curbelo, who slammed the Democrat as surrounded by corruption.

An earlier version of this story misstated the election in which Arrojo was a candidate. It was the 2010 general election, not the primary.

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