In his first sit down English-language television interview in weeks, U.S. Rep. David Rivera defended himself Sunday against a federal grand-jury investigation into his alleged involvement in a primary campaign against his Democratic opponent.
At one point, Rivera pulled out a black Sony tape recorder and held it up against his lapel microphone to play a recording of what he said was a telephone message from an FBI witness in the case.
The FBI is investigating whether Rivera illegally funneled secret money to Justin Lamar Sternad, who lost in the Aug. 14 primary to Joe Garcia. Garcia now faces Rivera.
“No federal agency has ever stated or confirmed that I am under investigation for anything,” Rivera told WPLG-ABC 10’s Michael Putney on This Week in South Florida.
What Rivera didn’t say: State records show that federal authorities as late as last year were investigating him in a separate matter stemming from a secret $500,000 dog track payment the congressman had arranged.
Rivera had denied at the time that he was even under state investigation or that he had a lawyer. Records showed otherwise.
In the latest investigation, at least two campaign vendors have told The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald that they had been interviewed by federal authorities concerning Sternad’s campaign, which was fueled by tens of thousands of unreported money — much of it cash.
The FBI was scheduled to speak to Ana Sol Alliegro, Sternad’s campaign manager who apparently acted as Sternad’s conduit to Rivera. She disappeared from public view several weeks ago.
A target of a federal investigation is typically not informed of the probe until it is wrapping up or investigators have compiled enough evidence to confront their subject.
When Putney pressed Rivera about his involvement in Sternad’s campaign leading up to the August primary, Rivera tried to discredit vendor Hugh Cochran, who has said Rivera hired his company, Campaign Data, to target voters to receive Sternad fliers.
“Let me play you a little tape from Mr. Cochran, a voice mail that he left with the Miami Herald reporter that is involved in running this story,” Rivera said. “Just so you know Mr. Cochran’s agenda.”
Rivera played a recording that he said was of a voice mail from Cochran to El Nuevo Herald Executive Editor Manny Garcia. On the recording, Cochran suggests looking into rental properties owned by Rivera staffer Alina Garcia and provides her purported cell phone number.
The number is actually Manny Garcia’s. Cochran said Sunday he thinks Rivera obtained the recording because Cochran mistakenly called Alina Garcia instead of Manny Garcia and left the message mixing up the phone numbers on her voice mail.
Manny Garcia had called Cochran, a retired FBI agent, asking if he knew where Alliegro might be hiding. Cochran was one of several poeple that the Herald had contacted, including Rivera, Alliegro’s parents, lawyer and friends. Alliegro did not return repeated calls and text messages from the Herald. There is no relation between Joe Garcia, Manny Garcia and Alina Garcia.
“My recollection is I probably said, ‘Well, if I think of some place, I’ll let you know,’” Cochran told the Herald on Sunday, adding that he later thought Alliegro might be staying with Alina Garcia. “It sounds like I probably left it on the answering machine, and it was the wrong answering machine.”
In an email, Rivera declined to say how he obtained the voice mail. “The origin of the tape is irrelevant,” he said.
During the TV interview, Rivera repeatedly accused Joe Garcia of being under investigation by the Federal Election Commission for campaign finance violations — though the FEC has said no such probe exists.
Rivera is referring to financial reporting incidents the agency has flagged in letters to Garcia — letters that candidates frequently receive and do not amount to an “investigation.” Rivera has received at least one FEC letter this election asking him for additional information about his campaign funding.
Rivera also repeated mostly inaccurate claims he has made attacking Garcia’s tenure on the Florida Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities, and at the U.S. Department of Energy.
Garcia did not appear on the show. His campaign said he had accepted an invitation to a debate three weeks ago, but had later been told only Garcia would appear because Rivera had not responded to the same invitation.
When Garcia’s campaign was informed Saturday night that Rivera would show up after all, it declined the invitation, citing insufficient time to prepare.
Rivera accused Garcia of “corruption.” Garcia’s campaign said the record shows that Rivera is the one with ethical issues.
For at least a year, Rivera has been under investigation by the FBI and IRS over his personal and campaign finances, which were also probed by state authorities. The state investigation closed earlier this year without any of 52 drafted charges filed against the first-term Miami Republican congressman.
Email records from that investigation refer to federal authorities conducting interviews in the case. And they show that Rivera had hired a defense attorney who was working on the case for two months while Rivera repeatedly denied to reporters that he knew of the investigation.
Earlier this weekend, Garcia and Rivera appeared in separate segments on WPBT-PBS 2’s Issues with Helen Ferré.
When Putney asked Rivera about opposing the DREAM Act — stalled legislation in Congress that would provide a path citizenship to young people brought into the U.S. illegally as children by their parents — the congressman said that was “quite inaccurate.”
“What I said during the 2010 campaign is that the DREAM Act...was something that we needed to build upon,” said Rivera, parsing his words.
In a Spanish-language campaign ad, Rivera features a DREAMer Daniela Peláez, a recent North Miami Senior High School graduate who faced deportation because her parents brought her into the country from Colombia illegally as a child. She received a reprieve thanks in part to intervention from Rivera and other members of Congress.
A fiery Rivera, who takes the hard line on matters of U.S.-Cuba policy, concluded the interview by arguing for his proposal to limit travel and remittances to the island by recent Cuban immigrants.
“I am sick and tired of people coming here from Cuba — getting welfare benefits, getting food stamps, getting Medicaid, getting housing assistance, getting cash assistance — then taking those welfare benefits from the largesse and the charitable spirit of the American people, the American taxpayer, and then traveling back to Cuba, which is a terrorist state,” he said.
Miami Herald staff writers Marc Caputo and Charles Rabin contributed to this report.