Politics

He pleaded guilty to elections shenanigans. Twice. Now he’s back.

Jeff Garcia
Jeff Garcia

At the depths of his descent from congressional chief of staff to political pariah, Jeffrey Garcia believed his career running campaigns was over.

He’d served jail time for illegally requesting hundreds of absentee ballots for oblivious voters in 2012, and admitted to creating a phony tea party candidate two years earlier to siphon votes away from his boss’ Republican nemesis. His hair shorn and his reputation soiled, Garcia told the world that he was through.

“His reputation as a political consultant is non-existent, except as the poster boy for crossing the line,” Garcia’s attorney, Henry Bell, explained to a judge ahead of his 2015 sentencing. “No longer welcome in campaign operations because of the notoriety associated with his misdeeds and his acceptance of responsibility, Mr. Garcia has left that life and career behind.”

Well, not exactly.

Following the termination of a probation sentence that prohibited him from engaging in campaigning until about mid-2015, Garcia is once again participating in politics. On Thursday, an email signed by “campaign manager” Jeffrey Garcia asked supporters of Democratic Florida House District 114 candidate Javier Fernandez to sign up to receive yard signs.

“Thank you for your support of our campaign!” the email stated.

The email — which Fernandez said was sent by his team without his consent or knowledge — appeared to contradict statements the candidate made to the Miami Herald last week about his relationship with Garcia, whom he described as an informal adviser. Fernandez, a land-use attorney, said at the time that his campaign manager is PJ Campbell, and that Garcia was not being paid by his campaign, as far as he knew.

“Jeff is someone I have consulted with,” he said. “There’s probably a group of six or seven key people I speak to pretty regularly about the campaign. He certainly has been interested to give me his voice and guidance and I’ve been receptive to it. He’s been in that circle.”

On Thursday, after the email was sent, Fernandez said in a statement that he will “take immediate action within my campaign to address this dissemination of incorrect information.”

Fernandez
Javier Fernandez

Garcia, who has found a new career running an electronics repair franchise called uBreakiFix, declined this week to talk to the Miami Herald about his involvement in Fernandez’s campaign. Fernandez has no primary opponent. Two Republicans, Jose Pazos and Andrew Vargas, are running for their party’s nomination.

In a general election that will likely be heavy on ethics, Fernandez will probably get dinged by his Republican opponent during an upcoming special election over his relationship with Garcia, considering the reason the seat is open in the first place. Former Rep. Daisy Baez, D-Coral Gables triggered the upcoming special election when she resigned her seat as part of a plea deal to avoid serving time for committing perjury on a voter’s registration form in an attempt to make it appear that she actually lived in the district.

But in Miami, a land of second, third and fourth chances, Garcia’s return isn’t all that unusual. Political figures have a knack of rebounding after a fall.

Jorge Luis de Cardenas, who did time in federal prison after being busted in Miami’s 1990s kickback scheme Operation Greenpalm, helped Jim Cason win the Coral Gables mayor’s post in 2011. Randy Hilliard, who once turned federal witness after allegedly playing the bag man in a bribery scandal involving a former Monroe County mayor, has helped candidates in Miami’s coastal communities win seats and stay in power.

“I’m a big believer that if people make mistakes they’re entitled to redemption. That’s what America is about,” said Hilliard, who has watched opposing candidates criticize him and then later turn around and hire him. “Candidates aren’t looking for choir boys in political consultants.”

Candidates certainly get second chances, too, which Garcia knows well.

David Rivera, the Republican who Garcia tried to undercut by creating a tea party candidate, is being sued by the federal government for $486,000 in civil penalties after he allegedly ran a straw candidate of his own against Joe Garcia two years later. He is currently running for State House district 105.

Joe Garcia, despite having received emails from his chief of staff about the illegal 2010 tea party campaign scheme, tried to reclaim his office in 2016 after losing to Rep. Carlos Curbelo. That fall, as the two candidates were debating, Jeffrey Garcia reappeared during a debate held at Belen Jesuit. Garcia declined to comment that night, other than to say he was attending as an alum and not a member of a campaign.

If Garcia is jumping back into campaigns, he’ll still have his friends from his long career in politics. For instance, in 2016, when he opened an electronics repair outlet in Coral Gables, Garcia had an old friend stop in to cut the ribbon: former State Rep. Erik Fresen, currently incarcerated for failing to file his federal tax returns.

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