State Politics

Court record shows ex-Rep. Joe Garcia may have known about “shadow” candidate

Jeffrey Garcia, pictured here when he pleaded guilty in state court in 2013.
Jeffrey Garcia, pictured here when he pleaded guilty in state court in 2013. MIAMI HERALD FILE

For nearly five years, former Miami Democratic Congressman Joe Garcia has denied that he knew his onetime campaign manager recruited a “shadow” tea party candidate to run in the 2010 congressional election against Garcia’s Republican nemesis, David Rivera.

But a federal court document disclosed Thursday suggests that Garcia’s former campaign manager, Jeffrey Garcia, communicated with him by email in February 2010 about his illicit campaign strategy.

“If I got a Tea Party candidate in the race, that will improve your odds,” Jeffrey Garcia emailed Joe Garcia, identified as “Candidate A” in the court record.

A week later, Jeffrey Garcia sent Joe Garcia another email entitled: “YOU WILL WIN IF,” followed by a bullet point stating, “Tea Party Candidate (will happen.)”

In April that year, Jeffrey Garcia wrote to the shadow candidate, Jose Rolando “Roly” Arrojo, stating that “Plan Roli is still moving. I am seeking funding. I have till mid-week next week to execute.”

Joe Garcia, who lost his congressional seat last year, has long denied any involvement in his former campaign manager’s violation of federal election laws. He has not been charged in the FBI-led case brought against Jeffrey Garcia and Arrojo.

“Thank goodness that the emails were finally released,” Joe Garcia's defense attorney, David O. Markus, told the Miami Herald on Thursday. “A review of all of the emails proves that Joe had no knowledge of any illegal activity. As we have said from day 1, Joe has done nothing wrong.”

Reached by phone on Friday, Joe Garcia concurred with his lawyer. “I think I should leave it where he made a statement. The statement stays as it was.”

Pressed further, Garcia added: “I’ve been clear on this, and the emails are pretty clear.”

The emails were disclosed Thursday in a factual statement filed with Jeffrey Garcia’s plea agreement. He pleaded guilty in Miami federal court to financing the tea party candidate in a scheme to siphon votes from Rivera in the 2010 congressional race. In April, Jeffrey Garcia — no relation to Joe Garcia — was charged with a misdemeanor of conspiring to give a campaign contribution of less than $25,000 to the ringer candidate in the race.

Prosecutors said Jeffrey Garcia surreptitiously put up the $10,440 qualifying fee for Arrojo to pose as a GOP challenger to Rivera in the 2010 general election. Arrojo also was charged with the same misdemeanor and pleaded guilty Thursday.

U.S. District Judge Jose Martinez scheduled their sentencings for Aug. 27. The misdemeanor offense carries up to one year in prison, but with their guilty pleas, Garcia, 42, and Arrojo, 41, could receive less punishment, including probation.

Jeffrey Garcia’s defense attorney, Henry Bell, plans to seek home confinement. “Jeffrey voluntarily came forward,” Bell said after Thursday’s plea hearing. “He accepts responsibility and he’s sorry. He just wants to move on with his life.”

Arrojo’s defense attorney, Robert M. Perez, plans to ask for probation. “This is closure to a regrettable chapter in my client’s life.”

Joe Garcia lost the 2010 congressional race to Rivera. Rivera is suspected of following a similar playbook two years later to prop up a Democratic straw candidate against Joe Garcia, who beat the GOP incumbent in 2012. Rivera has not been charged, although two others in that case — the straw candidate and Rivera’s ex-girlfriend — were convicted and served short prison sentences.

Jeffrey Garcia, who served as Joe Garcia’s congressional chief of staff, already has a criminal record: He served 65 days in jail in 2013 after pleading guilty to state charges that he unlawfully submitted online absentee-ballot requests for unsuspecting voters in the 2012 congressional election. No ballots were sent out, so no votes were stolen.

After accepting responsibility in that case, Jeffrey Garcia approached federal prosecutors to admit his role in the 2010 campaign, Bell said.

Arrojo’s defense attorney said that his client was a longtime friend of Jeffrey Garcia’s before the political consultant approached him to be a straw candidate. Perez said that Arrojo was not a political person but agreed to play the role as a favor to his friend.

According to the U.S. attorney’s office and the FBI, the illegal campaign financing began on April 27, 2010, when Jeffrey Garcia wrote two checks — for $5,500 and $5,000 — from the bank account of his consulting firm, Palm Media. He made them payable to “cash.”

The next day, Arrojo deposited both checks in his personal bank account. He then cut himself a $10,500 check, payable to “Roly Arrojo for Congress,” from his personal account to his congressional account to pay the $10,440 qualification fee that same day to the Florida Division of Elections.

Jeffrey Garcia then “participated” in creating fliers for Arrojo in October 2010, according to the charges filed by prosecutor Kimberly Selmore. When the Federal Election Commission started asking questions in November and December of 2010, Garcia “submitted false statements to the FEC concerning his identity and the contributions to the Roly Arrojo for Congress Committee.”

The money had come from $12,000 that Jeffrey Garcia, through Palm Media, drew from Joe Garcia’s congressional campaign account.

Joe Garcia, identified in the charging document as “Candidate A,” has long denied any involvement. He lost the 2014 congressional election to GOP challenger Carlos Curbelo.

The scale of the case pales in comparison to the one surrounding Rivera, the Republican who preceded Joe Garcia in Congress. Rivera’s ex-girlfriend, Ana Alliegro, told a grand jury he masterminded a scheme that secretly funneled more than $81,000 to the straw candidacy of Democrat Justin Lamar Sternad in 2012. Rivera covered their tracks and helped Alliegro twice escape to Nicaragua, according to Alliegro.

Alliegro and Sternad did prison time. Rivera has maintained his innocence.

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