Rep. Joe Garcia pays $25,000 consulting tab from past adviser amid federal investigation

Congressman Joe Garcia’s campaign paid his former adviser $25,000 for consulting work months after he was fired amid an election-fraud scandal, new financial disclosure documents show.

The payment to Jeffrey Garcia, no relation to the Miami Democratic representative for whom he was a chief of staff, came months after he received another eye-catching sum: a $25,000 “campaign win bonus” that Republicans suggested was “hush money.”

But Garcia’s campaign, which budgeted the bonus money before any troubles arose, denies any wrongdoing and said it had to pay Jeffrey Garcia’s company, Palm Media, after an invoice appeared in the campaign’s mailbox. \

“There were outstanding invoices and we had to honor them. This invoice was for services between January 2013 to May 2013. It was reviewed by our attorney and our campaign treasurer,” Raul Martinez, Jr., a campaign adviser and the congressman’s new staff chief, said in an email.

The Sept. 13 expenditure, instantly questioned by Republicans after it surfaced late Wednesday, intensifies the spotlight on Garcia’s campaign and Miami-Dade’s elections.

In Garcia’s campaign, the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office, responding to a Miami Herald report about suspicious ballot activity in 2012, uncovered evidence that two staffers were unlawfully submitting absentee ballot requests for some voters without their permission.

No ballots were unlawfully forged or cast, however.

Rep. Garcia said his friend and adviser, Jeffrey Garcia, admitted knowledge of the absentee ballot requests, prompting his dismissal May 31. The congressman’s spokesman, Giancarlo Sopo, resigned later amid the criminal investigation. A campaign manager is also under investigation.

The congressman hired attorney Brian Tannebaum, a political contributor to the Garcia campaign, to conduct an internal investigation, which found no one else knew of the scam. His firm was paid $10,000 for legal services on Aug. 2, the new campaign reports show.

About that time, The Miami Herald uncovered evidence indicating that Jeffrey Garcia might have helped secretly support a friend, phony Tea Party candidate Roly Arrojo, in 2010 as a way to siphon conservative votes from Republican David Rivera, who beat Garcia that year only to lose to him in 2012.

The FBI is now investigating Jeffrey Garcia and Arrojo; and Rivera is also under criminal examination for his possible ties to another illegally funded candidate, Democrat Justin Lamar Sternad, who ran against Garcia in 2012 and pleaded guilty to federal crimes shortly thereafter.

Both Rivera and Joe Garcia deny any knowledge of the alleged crimes tied to their respective campaigns.

Brett Kappel, a campaign-finance attorney with Washington-based Arent Fox, said the various payments Garcia made to his former adviser aren’t banned by federal elections rules. He said a campaign vendor’s work in one financial quarter can be paid in another depending on when the invoice is submitted and what the contractual arrangements are.

Some campaign contracts, however, do specify that the campaign vendor is following all laws and rules, Kappel said.

“That’s standard language in some contracts,” he said.

There’s a chance Garcia could have held off on paying the invoice, listing it as a pending obligation, but his campaign said their attorney recommended making the payment.

None of the news so far has dampened Garcia’s fundraising prowess; he reported contributions of $411,000 in the quarter ending Sept. 30.

One campaign contribution stood out: a $2,500 check from his friend and current lobbyist William Delahunt, who is representing a company seeking federal approval to test a Cuba-invented diabetes drug in the United States.

Days after recording the Sept. 19 contribution, Garcia quietly backed the drug-treatment effort by circulating an email to some other congressional members asking them to sign a letter backing U.S. tests, which need U.S. Treasury approval due to the Cuba embargo.

Garcia’s campaign points out that Delahunt, a former congressman from Massachusetts, isn’t just an old friend — he’s a longtime supporter who held a fundraiser for Garcia in his first congressional race in 2008.

Still, Garcia’s advocacy for the Cuban-drug tests marked the first time experts could remember a Cuban-American congressman backing an effort like this; other Cuban-American lawmakers wouldn’t sign or support the letter.

Garcia, who backs the embargo and Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terror, said he supported the drug test because it held promise to help diabetics and possibly prevent up to 70,000 amputations yearly. Critics said the drug is like other Cuba “snake-oil” promises that just give the regime a public-relations victory.

Garcia’s main Republican rival, Miami-Dade school board member Carlos Curbelo, criticized Garcia for spending his time advocating for the drug along with anti-embargo Democratic congressmen.

With the latest payment to Jeffrey Garcia, Curbelo issued a statement questioning why the congressman would pay “his former campaign manager, chief of staff, and roommate $50,000” amid the investigations.

“Joe Garcia’s conduct continues to disgrace and embarrass our community,” Curbelo said.

Staff writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report