Miami’s political escape artist can’t shake the feds’ election conspiracy lawsuit

Former Congressman David Rivera claimed vindication Thursday after a judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by the Federal Election Commission.
Former Congressman David Rivera claimed vindication Thursday after a judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by the Federal Election Commission. Miami Herald file

David Rivera, the escape artist of Miami politicians, will need to pull off an encore performance if he’s going to emerge completely unscathed from the campaign conspiracies that have embroiled him in controversy for a decade.

Only six months after claiming vindication, the former congressman learned in federal court Tuesday that he will indeed have to fight allegations that he secretly financed a ringer candidate to run in a primary against his Democratic nemesis, after Judge Marcia Cooke rejected Rivera’s second attempt to have her toss a Federal Election Commission complaint against him.

Rivera’s attorney had convinced the judge back in September to dismiss the lawsuit — the final unresolved case stemming from a career of campaign-finance shenanigans. But Cooke agreed to reopen the lawsuit in January, and this time Cooke sided with the FEC.

Cooke’s ruling means the lawsuit will go on, and Rivera, who was never charged by federal prosecutors in the scheme, will indeed have to defend himself in court from a federal agency seeking $389,000 in penalties.

“What I’m seeing is a way to end-run the campaign finance rules,” the judge said at one point.

In court for the hearing, Rivera, 53, declined afterward to comment.

In this case — the last unresolved issue stemming from Rivera’s scandal-plagued decade in the state Legislature and Congress — the FEC has accused Rivera of secretly bankrolling $55,000 in campaign vendor services for a political novice who filed in 2012 to run against Rivera’s likely challenger in the general election. Federal authorities say Rivera hoped to weaken Democrat Joe Garcia, who eventually beat the congressman that November and took his seat representing parts of Miami-Dade down through the Florida Keys.

The ringer candidate, Justin Lamar Sternad, claimed at the time to have paid for mailers and research with campaign loans when in fact federal authorities say vendors were secretly paid by Rivera. Sternad and Ana Alliegro, a former girlfriend of Rivera’s who acted as an intermediary in the scheme — and at one point fled to Nicaragua — both pleaded guilty.

Sternad eventually filed documents saying that more than $80,000 in campaign expenses were tied to Rivera or Alliegro.

But Rivera has always denied any wrongdoing, and in September he claimed vindication when Cooke dismissed the case against him. The judge had agreed that a new ruling in a Utah case found that the FEC could no longer sanction Rivera on the grounds that he had “assisted” in an effort to hide the source of his donations.

At the time, Rivera called the dismissed case against him “false accusations” and “politically-motivated fake news,” and was confident that the ordeal was over since he believed that the FEC would be unable to amend its complaint due to the statute of limitations on the alleged offenses.

It would have been the most recent victory for the once-influential legislator, who has over the last decade avoided charges stemming from a secret casino consulting contract that drew the attention of the Internal Revenue Service, and a state investigation into allegations that he used campaign cash for personal purposes. He’s unlikely to ever be forced to pay the nearly $58,000 in penalties levied by an administrative law judge over ethics violations after House Speaker José Oliva, the only person who can seek to collect, told POLITICO last week that he won’t fight the fellow Miami politician for the money.

But in January, Cooke agreed to reopen the case when the FEC said that it would prove that Rivera was primarily responsible for the scheme.

That may seem to be a matter of semantics, but the judge’s decision turned on that critical legal point.

During Tuesday’s hearing, Rivera’s defense attorney, Roy Kahn, said that no FEC law was broken because the candidate himself was required to disclose the campaign contributor of the in-kind service, not the donor. Kahn said it was Sternad’s responsibility to reveal in campaign filings the source of funds used to pay the printing vendors in his campaign.

“The candidate falsified that document,” Kahn said, referring to Sternad’s campaign finance form.

But the judge interrupted Kahn, saying “because the candidate was directed to falsify that document.”

“Rivera directed Alliegro to tell” Sternad not to disclose the true donor who paid his vendors, Cooke said.

FEC lawyer Greg Mueller argued that Rivera was the primary contributor of the in-kind vendor service to Sternad’s campaign, and that he instructed the candidate through Alliegro not to disclose his name as the donor on the campaign finance form.

“If the campaign is in on it, it doesn’t insulate the contributor,” Mueller said.

In its lawsuit, which now alleges fewer illegal payments and seeks a smaller penalty than the original complaint, the FEC is asking Cooke to find that Rivera violated federal election law “by knowingly and willfully making contributions in the name of another to Sternad’s campaign.”