Marc Caputo: Why Mr Smith ... er ... Mr. Sternad didn’t go to Washington

L amar Will Take Us Far.

The catchy slogan of the congressional candidate who called himself Lamar Sternad was the earliest indication of a campaign of deception. His first name isn’t Lamar.

But Justin Lamar Sternad’s slogan was spot-on in one regard.

Of the hundreds of no-name political neophytes who mount quixotic bids for office in Miami, Sternad went further than them all: The 10th floor of a federal justice building.

There in open court Friday, Sternad was formally accused of violating three federal laws stemming from his suspicious campaign finances, which were uncovered in an investigation by The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald.

Sternad earned the distinction of running a truly far-out campaign, one of the most-cynical, scandalous and strange South Florida has ever seen.

His campaign involved false federal campaign finance reports, at least $81,486 in secret checks and cash (much of it in $100 bills stuffed in envelopes), a bad boy of Miami politics, and a femme fatale of a campaign consultant, Ana Alliegro.

Alliegro’s whereabouts are unclear to the public. She skipped out on talking with the FBI in September.

Her close friend, former U.S. Rep. David Rivera, is the feds’ ultimate target.

The Miami Republican, who denies wrongdoing, is suspected by investigators and accused by campaign vendors of helping secretly back Sternad to undermine a rival, Joe Garcia, in the Democratic primary for the 26th Congressional District, 26, which stretches from West Miami-Dade to Key West.

Garcia’s now a congressman.

Sternad’s now a defendant. He’s cooperating with the feds.

Alliegro and Rivera aren’t named in Sternad’s federal charging document, which lists nameless “co-conspirators.”

But without Alliegro, it could be a challenge to prosecute Rivera.

Coincidentally, Sternad launched his masquerade of a campaign on the holiday that celebrates disguises: Halloween. In a letter dated Oct. 31, 2011, he notified the state of his intention to run.

Was he a plant, a ringer for Rivera, from the get-go? Or was he like so many other folks with no political experience who decide to run for office in the hope of making a Mr.-Smith-Goes-to-Washington difference?

“I’m running for Congress because right now there’s a high discontent with the recycling of establishment politicians,” Sternad said in a May interview with CBS4’s Elliot Rodriguez.

Days later, he started receiving the unreported cash that would be his downfall, federal records show.

During the CBS4 interview, the Democratic Sternad pointedly avoided criticizing the Republican congressman, saying it would be “pretty pretentious or arrogant of me to start going after David Rivera’s jugular like one of the other candidates, Joe Garcia’s doing. He’s mud-slinging.”

Sternad went on to call Garcia a “three-time loser.”

On Friday, it was clear Sternad lost big.

Wearing a gray polo shirt, Sternad was the only of the defendants not dressed in a tan jail jumper. He never said a word.

It’s unclear when Sternad first wound up on a crash-course with the justice system — that is, when he first came into contact with Alliegro, his de facto campaign manager.

Under one version of events (and there are a few) she happened to wander into the Wyndham Garden South Beach hotel where she (unintentionally?) ran into Sternad, who worked at the hotel. They got to talking.

A self-described “Republican bad girl,” she was an odd choice to run a campaign for a Democrat. More unusual: Alliegro is buddies with Rivera, who Sternad technically would have faced had he won the Aug. 14 primary.

Between May 25 and June 8, Sternad received $11,000 in cash he never reported, according to the federal charging document, known as an “information.” Sternad used the money to pay the state qualifying fee of $10,440 on June 8 — the same day as a large cash deposit into his campaign bank account.

For more than two months, the information says, a stream of unreported cash and checks flowed to and on behalf of Sternad’s campaign. It underwrote the cost of producing, directing and sending out a dozen or so mailers — all of which bore the “ Lamar Will Take Us Far” slogan.

Some mailers targeted rural or environmental voters. Another, aimed at women, savaged now-Congressman Garcia by falsely accusing him of walking out on his wife “as she battled cancer.” It compared Garcia to former Sen. John Edwards and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

If Rivera was behind it, it was the height of cynicism. Just a few months before, Rivera was a top Florida advisor for Newt Gingrich’s 2012 presidential campaign.

Some Sternad mailers gave an indication of why he might have used his middle name, Lamar, instead of Justin. He might have wanted to seem black.

Three mailers specifically targeted African-American voters. They bore images of President Obama, Martin Luther King, the Bullard family (three black current and former politicians from Miami) and Trayvon Martin, the black Miami Gardens teen whose Central Florida shooting death in 2011 ripped open the scab of racial tensions.

“Justice for Trayvon Martin,” one mailer said. “Stand Together As One Voice for Trayvon Martin.”

But none of those mailers had a picture of, as we noted in The Herald’s Naked Politics blog, Sternad’s “lily white” face.

As The Herald tried to get Sternad to answer how he could afford to pay for all of the mailers on what appeared to be just $822 in leftover money, Sternad refused comment.

This was his email response: “Kiss my lily-white ass.”

The swagger from the once-tough-talking candidate was gone Friday. The guy who said he would drive the district to listen to people didn’t even have a car to drive to surrender himself to federal authorities.

The FBI had to give him a ride.