David Rivera suspends Miami campaign for Congress

His reputation tainted by scandal, former Miami Congressman David Rivera vowed he would return to politics.

He did — for 72 days. On Friday, just over two months after launching a new campaign for his old seat, Rivera has called it quits, at least for now.

Rivera, who is under federal investigation in a campaign-finance scheme, said Friday he is suspending his congressional bid.

But he said it had nothing to do with the FBI probe — which he refuses to discuss — and everything to do with a ruling Thursday from a judge in Tallahassee.

“As a congressional candidate affected by this decision, I will not be held hostage by Florida’s liberal activist judges,” he said in an email to supporters.

Rivera cited “great uncertainty” following the ruling that invalidated two of Florida’s congressional district boundaries — even though neither of the districts was the one Rivera sought to represent.

The districts specifically invalidated by Leon Circuit Judge Terry P. Lewis are in Central and North Florida and don’t border the 26th Congressional District that Rivera was campaigning for, which extends from Kendall to Key West. In the event that new districts are redrawn, they would likely not take effect until the 2016 election, assuming the case is appealed as expected.

Lewis specifically said the 26th district, along with a few others, weren’t proven to be “invalid” by the plaintiffs, a coalition of liberal and Democratic-leaning groups.

Rivera didn’t explicitly say he’s dropping out of the race, but that’s usually what happens when candidates suspend their campaigns. He made the announcement in an email innocuously titled “Campaign Update” that came from from his longtime Comcast account.

Calls to Rivera’s cellphone went to voice mail. He did not respond to a message or an email requesting comment.

In his letter to supporters, Rivera said he intends to run for the Florida House of Representatives in 2016.

“There are just too many issues to solve in Florida — Common Core, Medicaid, economic development and others to sit by and wait for unelected judges to decide the fate of congressional districts,” he said.

Rivera served as a state legislator from 2002 to 2010, coinciding with his friend Sen. Marco Rubio. Rivera climbed the GOP ranks to become the powerful state House budget chief before he was elected to Congress in 2010. He lost two years later — marred by scandal in a newly redrawn district less favorable toward Republicans — to Democrat Joe Garcia in a rematch.

The latest FBI investigation began in 2012 after the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald reported illegal campaign contributions to Justin Lamar Sternad, an apparent ringer candidate in the Democratic primary. Sternad was sentenced Thursday to seven months in federal prison after admitting that he accepted about $82,000 from Rivera friend Ana Alliegro for campaign advertisements, some of which bashed Garcia to the benefit of Rivera.

“I hate to admit that Ana Alliegro and David Rivera were able to take advantage of me,” Sternad said at his sentencing.

After Sternad’s court appearance Thursday, Rivera dismissed the idea that he was involved in the scheme.

“Mr. Sternad is a pathetic convicted liar with no credibility whom I have never met or spoken to in my entire life,” he said in an email to the Herald.

Alliegro, who was charged earlier this year with helping Sternad make false statements on his campaign reports and with making illegal contributions in excess of federal campaign limits, is awaiting trial. She has pleaded not guilty. Two judges have insisted she remain in federal custody because she’s considered a flight risk for twice skipping town for Nicaragua, where Rivera visited her.

Rivera survived an earlier federal investigation by the IRS into his finances, and an investigation by the Federal Department of Law Enforcement and the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office that, despite a 52-count draft indictment, resulted in no charges.

Last month, an administrative law judge in Tallahassee issued an opinion to the Florida Commission on Ethics that Rivera double-billed taxpayers and his past political campaigns for travel, and failed to properly disclose his income to the state for years.

Rivera has long denied wrongdoing. He has repeatedly refused to discuss the federal investigation. After a candidate forum last month, Rivera wouldn’t even say how he has been making a living since leaving Congress.

When he filed to run again two months ago, Rivera surprised even hardened politicians and the already crowded field of Republican contenders. Miami-Dade School Board member Carlos Curbelo, Cutler Bay Mayor Ed MacDougall, former Miami-Dade Commission Chairman Joe Martinez and attorney Lorenzo Palomares-Starbuck are running for their party’s nomination in the Aug. 26 primary.

Rivera has not yet been required to file a campaign finance report, which is not due until July 15, so whether he has managed to raise any funds remains unknown. GOP heavyweights, including former Gov. Jeb Bush and Miami Republican Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, had endorsed Curbelo long before Rivera’s entry into the race.

Another sign that Curbelo is considered the establishment favorite: On Friday, the Democratic Party wasted little time on Rivera to instead attack Curbelo.

“David Rivera would have been a horrendous nominee for Republicans in Florida’s 26th Congressional District, but self-interested lobbyist Carlos Curbelo isn’t any better,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman David Bergstein said in a statement.

Curbelo, a political and public relations consultant who is not currently a registered lobbyist, countered that the DCCC “is desperately trying to deflect attention” from Garcia.

“They know it is only a matter of time before law enforcement authorities conclude their investigation of the straw candidate Garcia and the DCCC recruited in the 2010 elections,” he said in an email.

The FBI has been investigating Garcia’s former chief of staff, Jeffrey Garcia, no relation, for ties to an apparent straw candidate from the 2010 Republican primary, who posed as a tea-party hopeful to draw votes away from Rivera. As part of a separate, state investigation, Jeffrey Garcia pleaded guilty last year to directing the congressman’s campaign to request hundreds of absentee ballots without voters’ permission.

Joe Garcia has denied knowledge or involvement in either case.

Miami Herald staff writer Jay Weaver contributed to this report.