The FBI and Miami-Dade police have opened separate criminal investigations into the campaign of a Democratic congressional candidate who, vendors say, was aided by GOP Rep. David Rivera.
Federal agents gathered campaign records, invoices and began interviewing employees at two mail and data companies used by Democrat Justin Lamar Sternad’s primary campaign. Sternad spent about $43,000 in unreported cash and checks on mail services, a witness told The Herald and authorities. Some of the money was stuffed in envelopes bulging with $100 bills.
Federal law required Sternad to quickly report any contributions — including loans —just before the Aug. 14 primary, which he lost to Democrat Joe Garcia, a longtime Rivera rival who Sternad bashed in one of his 11 mailers.
Rivera, investigators suspect, was behind the sophisticated mail campaign run by Sternad, who was an unknown political newcomer and hotel night auditor.
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John Borrero, the owner of Rapid Mail and Computer Services in Hialeah, said he and his employees have met with investigators.
“I have been truthful with you, and I have been truthful with them,” said Borrero, referring all questions to police.
But Rivera strenuously denied the allegation Wednesday night in a televised interview on Spanish-language América Tevé’s (Channel 41) A Mano Limpia, insisting that he has no connection to the Sternad campaign, claiming Borrero lied and that The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald produced "nonsense and slander" in league with Garcia’s campaign.
“I’m going to move forward, focused on my work," Rivera said.
Rivera — who denies ever knowing Sternad — also produced a copy of a new campaign report for Sternad that purported to show, for the first time, that the Democrat’s campaign had paid Rapid Mail. Earlier in the day, a reporter for América Tevé said the congressman called her and told her to go to see Sternad’s lawyer, where she would get a scoop on the new campaign report. The lawyer never gave it to her.
Rivera didn’t explain how he got the report and Federal Elections Commission officials told The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald on Wednesday that the document had not been received yet by the FEC.
Even if Sternad amended his report, however, it might not be enough to avoid more questions from investigators.
Sternad referred all calls to attorney Enrique “Rick” Yabor, who refused to comment.
Borrero said he was paid in cash for all of his work, which involved scanning mail addresses on fliers. He was only paid in check from a company called Expert Printing, which paid at least $9,000.
Asked about working on Sternad’s behalf, Expert Printing’s Enrique Barrios wouldn’t talk.
“We have no comment on that,” Barrios said repeatedly. His company has handled $226,000 worth of business from Rivera over the past decade. He and a business partner have also been Rivera contributors.
Another vendor, Campaign Data’s Hugh Cochran, told The Herald that Rivera helped target the voters mailed by Sternad’s campaign. He produced a July 29 email to Rivera and Borrero concerning the data.
Rivera’s campaign didn’t deny he received Cochran’s email about Sternad’s campaign.
“Anything Campaign Data mistakenly sent to Congressman Rivera was done so in error, which has occurred previously,” the campaign said in an email, “and without Congressman Rivera’s knowledge or consent.”
Rivera already faces a federal investigation tied to his personal and campaign finances, which came under scrutiny due to a secret $500,000 dog-track payment in 2008. He narrowly avoided 52 state charges as part of an investigation that showed a campaign ally converted $190,000 in cash that essentially disappeared in 2010
It’s unclear how Sternad afforded any mailers used in his race, let alone the large sums of cash.
But his campaign enabled him to win nearly 11 percent of the vote, finishing third behind Garcia and Gloria Romero Roses, whose campaign could have been helped the most by Sternad’s effort.
Married to an unemployed wife, Sternad has five children and pulls in about $30,000 in income from part-time hotel work, records show. Despite having only modest investments, Sternad was able to loan himself nearly $11,000 for his campaign.
After spending $10,440 on the state fee to qualify for the ballot, he spent everything else on phones, a few campaign signs and postage, his pre-primary campaign-finance reports showed.
Total cash on hand: $120.97 on July 25.
After that date, FEC rules require any contribution exceeding $1,000 to be reported within two days. Even if Sternad loaned himself the money, he would have to report it within two days in the final days of the primary.
The FEC said Sternad filed no 48-hour reports.
Sternad’s reports on the FEC website show no expenditures for Rapid Mail, Campaign Data, Expert Printing or his campaign consultant, Ana Alliegro, a Rivera friend who has refused to comment and couldn’t be reached Wednesday.
Alliegro was also a paid consultant for Sternad’s attorney, Yabor, in his failed bid for county judge Aug. 14.
Federal officials usually consider campaign-finance violations civil matters — unless a candidate or campaign is knowingly and willfully violating filing false reports or failing to disclose contributions.
For this primary, Sternad was limited to receiving $2,500 contributions per individual. Contributors are banned from giving more than $100 in cash.
Sternad’s attorney, Yabor, claimed Sternad filed updated campaign-finance reports Friday with the FEC, where a spokesperson said the documents had not been received on the day Yabor indicated.
Yabor refused to provide the documents to The Herald.
But even if the documents were filed late, it might not matter to federal authorities, said Kenneth Gross, a top Washington-based election-law lawyer expert who’s not involved with the case.
“When it comes to reporting, there’s no putting the toothpaste back in the tube,’ Gross said.
“You can’t just automatically say ‘whoopsie, sorry, there was a mistake, let me fix this.’ The law does not provide for your violation to be vitiated if you correct the problem after the fact.”
Miami Herald reporter Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.