Rivera, Garcia campaign — all over again — for congressional seat under cloud of controversy

The déjà vu congressional race for Florida’s southernmost district features the same candidates, the same slogans and the same issues as it did two years ago.

Except this time it also involves a federal grand jury, a pile of ethics violations and an FBI witness on the lam.

Republican U.S. Rep. David Rivera handily defeated Democrat Joe Garcia in 2010. Now the congressman, plagued by controversy, is fighting for his political survival.

His party has largely abandoned him. He has been unable to raise much campaign money. And he has had to defend himself about pending federal investigations and state ethics charges in almost all of his recent public appearances.

Rivera has tried to counter these questions with political judo. The FBI probe? An invention, he claims, of The Miami Herald, El Nuevo Herald and other media outlets. The 11 charges the Florida Commission of Ethics filed this week? A Democratic hit job. As for his opponent, Rivera has deployed the gravest of slurs: Garcia, he insists — without offering any proof — is an agent of Fidel Castro.

“That’s what’s at stake in this election,” Rivera told a Spanish-language television station this week. “Not these false allegations: having Havana’s man in Congress.”

The day before, Garcia, who has employed a campaign strategy of getting out of Rivera’s way, accused the congressman of engaging in “a great campaign of disinformation.”

“He’s in a desperate place,” Garcia told reporters at a forum sponsored by the AARP. “This is not about investigations ... When this gentleman gets up, he stands up for all of us.”

Rivera, 47, and Garcia, 49, are vying to represent Congressional District 26, whose newly redrawn borders extend from Kendall to Key West. Neither Garcia, who is divorced and has a teenage daughter, nor Rivera, who is unmarried, lives in the district — nor are they required to. Two other candidates, Angel Fernandez and Jose Peixoto, are running without party affiliation, though they have not mounted major campaigns.

The inclusion of the more moderate Florida Keys has made the district slightly less favorable for the incumbent Rivera, whose previous district stretched from western Miami-Dade to east of Naples.

Still, political analysts widely rated the new district as leaning Republican — until after the Democratic primary, in which a little-funded first-time candidate, Justin Lamar Sternad, carried out an extensive direct-mail campaign with sophisticated voter targeting.

Two campaign vendors, who have since given statements and turned over evidence to the FBI, have said Rivera ran Sternad’s operation. The conduit was Rivera’s close friend, Ana Sol Alliegro — Sternad’s campaign manager — who delivered envelopes stuffed with cash to a printing company. Alliegro vanished after skipping a scheduled interview with FBI agents, who are still trying to talk to her.

Word of the federal investigation, which drew the attention of a grand jury, prompted Rivera to slip in the polls. Two Democratic surveys and one Republican one have shown Garcia ahead by around 10 percentage points — a lead that a few months earlier would have been unthinkable. Despite Rivera saying his internal polls show him ahead, political analysts changed their predictions to make them less favorable to the congressman.

Rivera, a former state representative and Florida House budget chairman, was once a prolific fundraiser with powerful political ties across the state. But he was hit with a pair of investigations into his personal and campaign finances — one by the state and one by the FBI and IRS — shortly after entering Congress. They have hung like a dark cloud over him since; he has been outraised by Garcia, and, unlike his congressional colleagues, has been not been invited to events with his party’s presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, who polls show has a slight edge on President Barack Obama.

The federal investigation is ongoing, separate from the FBI probe into Sternad’s primary campaign.

The Miami-Dade state attorney’s office and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement closed their joint investigation in April after concluding that the statute of limitations and ambiguous state laws did not allow them to charge Rivera with any of the 52 counts they had drafted against him. Prosecutors, however, wrote that they found Rivera had “essentially live[d] off” campaign contributions for almost a decade.

After the state investigation closed, the Florida ethics commission, which had received two complaints about Rivera’s finances in 2010 — including one from a Garcia donor — moved forward with its review. The commission was scheduled to take up the case in September, but delayed the hearing at Rivera’s request. When he again tried to push it until after Election Day, he was rebuffed.

The commission, made up of five Republicans and four Democrats, charged him on Wednesday with 11 ethics violations for failing to fully disclose his finances, misusing campaign funds and concealing a $1 million consulting contract with a dog track while he was still a state legislator.

After the charges were filed, Rivera did a blitz of interviews decrying the ethics commission as partisan and likening the charges to Garcia’s lawsuit two years ago trying to disqualify him from the ballot. And he dusted off a tactic he briefly employed in 2010 trying to link Garcia to Castro. Two years ago, Rivera called Garcia a Castro “henchman” — and then denied using the word. This year, he referred to him as a regime “lobbyist.”

Earlier in the campaign, Rivera had leveled other charges against Garcia, trying to paint him as “corrupt” during his tenure as director of the Office of Minority Economic Impact and Diversity at the U.S. Energy Department under Obama. Rivera has also suggested letters to Garcia’s campaign from the Federal Election Commission flagging financial reporting incidents amount to an “investigation,” though the FEC has said otherwise.

The issues in the campaign have played a supporting role.

Rivera, who has made a career of Cuba politics and whose core supporters remain older, Cuban-American voters, opposes U.S. travel to Cuba. He has also proposed amending federal law to sanction Cubans who arrive in the U.S. and return to the island before they earn citizenship — a process that usually takes up to five years. Garcia opposes tourist travel but favors the Obama administration’s policy that allowed more family and institutional travel and remittances.

Garcia has pounced on Rivera for not supporting the DREAM Act legislation that would give a path to citizenship to young people brought into the U.S. illegally as children by their parents. Rivera has countered that he has filed his own, more narrow immigration proposals that would allow undocumented young people who graduate from college or serve in the military to remain in the U.S., though not to obtain citizenship.

Rivera supports the Medicare plan proposed by Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, which would restructure the program to give future seniors voucher-like “premium support” to buy private insurance. Those 55 and older would continue with the existing Medicare system. Garcia opposes that approach, instead favoring cutting down on “waste” in the program and beefing it up by passing comprehensive immigration reform to ensure undocumented workers pay into Medicare.

Garcia opposes oil drilling off Florida’s coast. Rivera says he favors deep-water drilling, but not drilling near the Keys — or off the coast of Cuba.

Both candidates have tried to court voters on the jobs issue, with Rivera touting his support and behind-the-scenes push for free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama, which Congress approved last year. He has also campaigned on favoring a U.S. Constitutional amendment to balance the federal budget.

Garcia, who broke with his party two years ago to support the agreements, has campaigned for federal funding for infrastructure projects, such as to repair Miami-Dade’s antiquated water and sewer pipes to help small businesses grow. His economic proposals, which he released only this week, have the same slogan as in 2010: “Joe is for Jobs.”

“Most problems are problems — they’re not Republican problems or Democratic problems,” said Garcia, a self-described pragmatist who lost a 2008 congressional bid against Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart and a 1993 campaign for an open Miami-Dade County Commission seat.

Rivera, however, likes to note that the U.S. House will most likely remain in Republican hands.

“No Democrat ... will be able to achieve anything,” Rivera said. “I’ve actually been able to get things done.” On the campaign trail, he has repeatedly said that he has focused “like a laser beam” on constituent services and major issues in Congress, despite the scandals swirling around him.

But maintaining that focus can be difficult, as his rash of interviews this week showed.

As the congressman wrapped up a prime-time television interview on WJAN-Channel 41, known as América TeVe, the program’s host, Oscar Haza, reached across the table to shake Rivera’s hand.

Then Haza added, almost off-handedly, “Where is Ana Alliegro?”