A former aide of U.S. Rep. David Rivera and a printing company have both become witnesses in the federal investigation of the Republican politician’s ties to an illegally funded congressional campaign, The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald have learned.
The cooperation of former Rivera aide Ivette Pinto and Expert Printing & Graphics in Doral mark another major milestone in a criminal case that has already resulted in the guilty plea of Democratic congressional candidate Justin Lamar Sternad.
Fueled with at least $81,486 in secret money, Sternad’s campaign was used as a proxy to undermine a political rival of Rivera, who denies wrongdoing.
Sternad was cooperating with prosecutors even before he formally admitted Friday that he illegally accepted secret money, lied about it and schemed with as-yet unnamed coconspirators. In a written statement, he said he was “used by others.”
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Now Expert Printing, which produced Sternad’s mailers, said they worked directly with Ana Alliegro. She was Sternad’s campaign manager and is a close friend of Rivera.
“We were hired by Ana Alliegro to Design & Print Campaigns Flyers for Justin Lamar Sternad and received full payment for services rendered,” according to a statement from the company emailed to the newspapers.
Alliegro’s public whereabouts have been unclear since she skipped out on a meeting with FBI agents in October.
“Expert Printing has been fully transparent and [is] cooperating with authorities since the initial stages of this case,” the statement also said. “Expert Printing has been and will continue to fully cooperate and or assist the FBI or any other Legal entity or authority investigating this case now and in the future.”
Expert Printing is a key player in the Sternad case and his candidacy. It likely knows who delivered $15,000 in unreported cash and when.
The company is a longtime vendor of Rivera’s and other Republican candidates, and may have produced about a dozen different types of mailers for Sternad, a Cutler Bay political newcomer and unknown who had no money to pay for it all.
One Expert Printing-produced mailer for Sternad echoed a line of attack, originating with Rivera, that savaged rival Joe Garcia over his divorce. Garcia, a Democrat, beat Sternad in the Aug. 14 primary and then defeated Rivera, a Republican, in November to capture the new Kendall-to-Key West congressional seat.
About the same time that Expert Printing was working for Sternad, it was approached to do a small print job by a little-known nonprofit Hispanic advocacy group called Florida Action Network, for which Pinto helped keep the books.
The FBI is examining whether the money for Florida Action Network was diverted to help underwrite some of Sternad’s campaign. Two network founders told the newspapers they never saw the mailers.
Neither Pinto nor Expert Printing would say if Florida Action Network’s mailer was ever produced or if its money was illegally spent to help Sternad.
“To be clear, Ms. Pinto has done nothing illegal and has cooperated fully with federal law enforcement in its investigation as a witness,” her lawyer, Robert H. Fernandez, said in an email.
Fernandez helped incorporate Florida Action Network in April 2012. The nonprofit had relatively little money last year when it decided to spend less than $14,000 with Expert Printing to make a mailer to get out the Hispanic Republican vote in Miami-Dade County.
About that time, on Aug. 2, a Sternad co-conspirator paid Expert Printing $13,824.85 with a check drawn from a bank account that didn’t belong to Sternad’s campaign or his personal account, federal records show. It’s unclear if this money was from a Florida Action account.
The two network founders said that they never even saw the mailer Florida Action paid for.
One founder, Marcos Sendon, said he didn’t even know that Florida Action planned to produce a mailer. “This is obviously troubling,” said Sendon, an activist who also heads the group South Florida Conservatives.
The network’s registered agent, Eric C. Padron, said he knows little.
‘i didn’t see it’
“I don’t know what happened here,” Padron said. “I know a check was cut for the mailer. I know it was cashed. And none of this means the mailer wasn’t made, even though I didn’t see it … There are plenty of things that are investigated that turn out to be wrong.”
A third officer of the group, Republican consultant Eileen Pineiro, said she’d discuss the matter with the newspapers but couldn’t talk on the phone. She said she’d have to call back. She didn’t, and didn’t answer her phone or return an email.
Padron and Sendon say they have not been subpoenaed.
Padron this week reached out to another vendor involved in the case, John Borrero, owner of Rapid Mail & Computer Services in Hialeah, to see if he had any records of mailing out the mailers.
“I told him that Expert Printing never sent me any fliers for a Hispanic vote drive,” Borrero said. “All the mailings I sent were for the Sternad campaign.”
Borrero, like Sternad’s other two vendors, has done work for Rivera and other Republicans for years. He and another campaign vendor first told the newspapers and then the FBI that Rivera and Alliegro were behind Sternad’s campaign.
Padron said he believed Pinto, who briefly worked part-time in Rivera’s local congressional office before and after the election, cut a check to Expert Printing for the work and that she got a receipt. He said he didn’t have any of the paperwork, which was in Pinto’s possession.
For what it was supposed to do — gin up Hispanic support in a primary — the Florida Action Network expense was too small to make a difference in a county as big as Miami-Dade, home to nearly 1.3 million voters, of whom 693,000 are Hispanic. Also, turning out Hispanic support countywide was more of a general-election issue as both Republicans and Democrats battled for the coveted demographic.
Florida Action was started with the idea of holding a general-election Hispanic-conservative outreach gathering in Miami-Dade, said Padron and Sendon.
But they could never get enough money together. Sendon said he felt disappointed because he was in talks to get conservative Michael Reagan, son of the former president, to appear.
With about $27,000 left in the bank, Padron said, someone thought the committee should just spend the money on a mailer. About half was spent on consultants and mailing services and the rest on printing.
Padron, a one-time candidate for legislative office who actually ran against Fernandez, is an attorney who once represented consultant Esther Nuhfer, an ally of Rivera’s in yet another criminal case involving a secret payment from a dog track.
That case is ongoing, although Nuhfer is not under investigation nor is Padron or Sendon.
Padron said all of the political controversy has been more trouble than it’s worth.
“I just want this committee closed down,” Padron said. “If I got fooled, then lesson learned.”