State Politics

Ex-congressman’s top aide gets probation, fine for breaking election law

Jeffrey Garcia’s defense attorney successfully argued for a probationary sentence and home confinement — a request supported by the U.S. attorney’s office — because of his cooperation in the investigation, including testifying before a grand jury.
Jeffrey Garcia’s defense attorney successfully argued for a probationary sentence and home confinement — a request supported by the U.S. attorney’s office — because of his cooperation in the investigation, including testifying before a grand jury. pool photo

At first, it looked like Jeffrey Garcia, the former campaign manager for ex-Congressman Joe Garcia, was heading to prison for breaking an election law, even after a prosecutor recommended probation as punishment.

“The problem is, this type of crime strikes at the very core of our democracy,” U.S. District Judge Jose Martinez declared Monday, noting that he found it “infuriating” the way outsiders think of Miami as a “Banana Republic” because of all its fraud and corruption.

But in the end, after telling the defense attorney for Jeffrey Garcia that he was confronting an “uphill road,” Martinez gave the defendant a two-year probationary sentence with eight months of home confinement and a $1,000 fine. Jeffrey Garcia and Joe Garcia are not related.

Martinez cited prosecutor Kimberly Selmore’s support for the lenient sentence, along with defense attorney Henry Bell’s arguments that his client cooperated extensively with the FBI investigation, including testifying before the grand jury, and had already been severely punished after losing his solid career as a once-respected political strategist.

I’m here today because of my own actions, which were wrong — no excuses.

Jeffrey Garcia

“We’re talking about a man whose life has been turned upside down,” Bell said during the hearing. “My client’s career is done. He talked about others [in politics]. It’s not something he wanted to do, but he did the right thing.”

Jeffrey Garcia, convicted of a misdemeanor in a plea deal, faced up to one year in prison for illegally financing the campaign of a ringer tea party candidate whose role in the 2010 congressional election was designed to help the Democratic bid of Garcia’s boss, Joe Garcia, against Republican David Rivera. The district was based in southwest Miami-Dade County.

Jeffrey Garcia, 43, who served first as Joe Garcia’s campaign manager and later as chief of staff, already had 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 authorities to admit his role in the 2010 campaign, Bell said.

In June, Jeffrey Garcia pleaded guilty in Miami federal court to financing the “shadow” tea party candidate, Jose Rolando “Roly” Arrojo, in a scheme to siphon votes from Rivera in the 2010 congressional race. Arrojo, 42, a longtime friend of Jeffrey Garcia’s, also pleaded guilty to the same misdemeanor charge. On Monday, Arrojo was sentenced to one year of probation with six months of home confinement and no fine, after his defense attorney, Robert M. Perez, sought even greater leniency.

Jeffrey Garcia and Arrojo were each charged with a misdemeanor of conspiring to give a campaign contribution of less than $25,000 to Arrojo’s “straw” tea party campaign. Jeffrey Garcia surreptitiously put up the $10,440 qualifying fee for Arrojo to pose as a tea party challenger to Rivera in the 2010 congressional election. The legal limit was $2,400.

Jeffrey Garcia and Arrojo were each charged with a misdemeanor of conspiring to give a campaign contribution of less than $25,000 to Arrojo’s “straw” tea party campaign.

At their sentencing hearings on Monday, both defendants expressed remorse.

“I’m here today because of my own actions, which were wrong — no excuses,” said Jeffrey Garcia, who counted former Florida Attorney General Robert Butterworth among those who wrote letters on his behalf. “I should have known better. ... I made some poor decisions.”

Arrojo, who had agreed to run as a tea party candidate because of his friendship with Jeffrey Garcia, said: “I am ashamed and humiliated for an extremely poor decision.”

Arrojo did not wage an actual campaign in the 2010 general election, which Joe Garcia lost to Rivera that November.

Joe Garcia has always claimed he was unaware of his former campaign manager’s scheme to recruit a ringer candidate for that election — despite emails in which Jeffrey Garcia had told his then-boss about the illicit strategy in February of that year.

“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 a statement filed with the political strategist’s plea agreement in June.

In a follow-up email, Jeffrey Garcia wrote: “YOU WILL WIN IF,” followed by a bullet point stating, “Tea Party Candidate [will happen].”

In April 2010, Jeffrey Garcia wrote to the shadow candidate, Arrojo, stating that “Plan Roli is still moving. I am seeking funding. I have till mid-week next week to execute.”

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 misdemeanor charge. When the Federal Election Commission started asking questions in November and December 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 has long denied any involvement in his failed bid for Congress that year. Garcia rebounded and beat Rivera in 2012, but he lost the 2014 congressional election to GOP challenger Carlos Curbelo.

The FBI’s investigation into Joe Garcia’s 2010 campaign was launched after it had opened a probe of Rivera’s campaign after the 2012 general election. The Republican was suspected of following a similar playbook 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.

The scale of the Jeffrey Garcia 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 Rivera 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.

Throughout the investigation, Rivera has maintained his innocence — insisting that he has not been the target, despite meeting behind the scenes with several criminal defense attorneys. His fate has become a parlor game in legal circles, as federal prosecutor Thomas Mulvihill weighs whether to charge Rivera with federal election law violations. His decision is expected this fall.

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