Politics

Curbelo’s campaign and office paid $390K to a friend who is now his business partner

Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo lost to Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell

Debbie Mucarsel-Powell used a barrage of TV ads and a campaign focused on healthcare, Democrats’ single-most important issue, to defeat Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo on November 6, 2018.
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Debbie Mucarsel-Powell used a barrage of TV ads and a campaign focused on healthcare, Democrats’ single-most important issue, to defeat Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo on November 6, 2018.

During his final two years in office and for several months afterward, former Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo paid a Miami dentist and childhood friend with no political experience nearly $400,000 for political consulting, according to recent campaign records. And since losing his seat last November, he’s spent thousands of dollars from his leadership PAC — called “What a Country!” — on wine and high-end restaurants.

Now, Curbelo’s friend, JP Chavez, is his business partner in a communications and public affairs startup venture called Vocero LLC, according to business records and interviews.

Experts say hiring a friend without political experience for hefty sums and spending cash from a leadership PAC after leaving office probably don’t run afoul of the law. But the combination does raise questions about how Curbelo — who has hinted at a possible Miami-Dade mayoral run — handled campaign cash raised for a nationally watched race against Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell that he ultimately lost by just over 4,000 votes.

“I think it’s worth raising the questions, and maybe donors will ask the campaign if they’re spending money effectively,” said Brendan Fischer, an expert on campaign finance with the Campaign Legal Center. “Campaigns are prohibited from using campaign funds for personal uses, or expenditures above fair market value, but fair market value is hard to determine.”

Florida Politics first reported on Curbelo’s leadership PAC spending and the payments to Chavez. But business records reviewed by the Miami Herald and interviews revealed Curbelo and Chavez’s ongoing business relationship after Curbelo left office.

In an email, Chavez acknowledged that he didn’t have any experience in politics before he was employed by Curbelo. But he eventually worked for him in four capacities: in Curbelo’s campaign, his leadership PAC , a Curbelo-affiliated super PAC and a job in Curbelo’s congressional office.

“I had learned a lot from interacting with Carlos through his political career,” Chavez said in an email. “The rest I learned on-the-job like many other people in politics.”

Most of the payments to Chavez were through a firm called Solari Communications. The company did no work for any candidate except Curbelo and was not active before the 2018 election cycle, according to business records that list Chavez as the registered agent. Chavez said “the company was set up principally to service the political operation” when asked if Solari had clients other than Curbelo.

Curbelo represented Florida’s 26th Congressional District for two terms, beginning in January 2015. He lost his seat to Mucarsel-Powell in November. In an email in response to questions about his financial transactions, he said he’d followed campaign finance laws.

“Our political operation has nothing to hide which is why all transactions were reported in accordance with relevant rules and regulations,” Curbelo wrote. “After a disappointing loss, we decided that we would work together post-Congress. I am grateful for the opportunity to work with him as he is trustworthy, competent and talented.”

Chavez and Curbelo said Vocero, their new company, is “absolutely not” benefiting from the money Chavez and Solari received from Curbelo’s political operations in 2017, 2018 and 2019.

“We incorporated Vocero earlier this year, and it is completely unrelated to and unaffiliated with any other company,” Curbelo said.

Most of the largest payments that went to Solari and Chavez were not public knowledge until after the November election because they appeared in post-election campaign finance reports. Solari also received $22,000 from Curbelo’s campaign account in two payments made in January and March of 2019 for fundraising consulting, after Curbelo was out of office. He has not actively raised money since leaving office.

Though Curbelo recently said he’s not planning to run for Congress in 2020, he’s hinted at a run for Miami-Dade mayor, courting donors and telling Politico Florida last week that there’s a “strong possibility” he’ll run for countywide office in 2020.

The payments from Curbelo to Chavez, totaling $393,700 included $57,500 in taxpayer funds for six months of work in Curbelo’s official congressional office as an “external affairs policy coordinator,” making Chavez the third highest paid member of Curbelo’s official staff.

Other payments: $177,700 for work on Curbelo’s unsuccessful reelection campaign, $121,500 for work with Curbelo’s leadership PAC and $15,000 for work with a super PAC that spent a majority of its money supporting Curbelo and working against Mucarsel-Powell.

Solari was the fourth largest recipient of Curbelo’s campaign cash, behind three consulting and marketing companies with extensive experience in politics. The largest chunk of funds — $2.6 million — went to OnMessage Inc., an established Republican consulting firm that coordinated Curbelo’s TV advertising, typically the largest expense in congressional campaigns.

Solari was also the largest recipient of funds from Curbelo’s leadership PAC, a vehicle that members of Congress use to dole out money to fellow lawmakers or for expenses that are ineligible to be paid for by the candidate’s campaign or official congressional office.

Chavez said Solari spent money on fundraising, donor prospecting, coalition-building and travel, so not all of the money sent to Solari ended up in Chavez’s bank account.

“The company had routine expenses associated with these operations,” Chavez said.

Florida Politics reported that Curbelo’s “What a Country!” leadership PAC spent nearly $53,394 in 2019 without collecting any new donations. The PAC, which Curbelo must use for political purposes and not personal expenses, sent a single $1,000 check to another candidate.

Leadership PACs are typically used by incumbent lawmakers to dole out campaign cash to like-minded lawmakers. But since leaving office Curbelo’s PAC spent $4,272 at a Napa Valley winery and $17,227 on airfare.

In an email Thursday, Curbelo said he wished he could have paid his team more: “I am grateful to my entire team — including a number of close friends — for all they did to support our efforts, and I only wish we could have compensated them more for the time, work, and the sacrifices they made.”

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