It’s almost like a Carl Hiaasen novel. A corrupt Republican politician with Saint Reagan hung in a place of honor on his office wall (and his fingers in too many unethical pies) who tried to hide his tracks via the generous application of — wait for it! — correction fluid on the damning documents. A fake Democrat “shadow candidate” deployed to influence an election in Rivera’s favor, who hid his race (white) on fliers targeted at African-American communities. A Republican political operative who bragged about how bad-ass she was and how rough she liked to play, who liked to crow about the time she stripped bare and fired a gun at her ex-husband, and who has mysteriously disappeared. An increasingly testy herd of unsmiling Government Suits who are circling around like hungry sharks. Oh, Florida! Shine on, you crazy diamond.
Florida Representative David Rivera has been the subject of five different ethics violation investigations since 2006, which include tax evasion, campaign finance fraud and money laundering. Rivera apparently felt that he needed to add to his criminal résumé and so he tried some election tampering on for size by funding a fake Democrat to siphon votes, donations and support away from his real Democratic opponent in a primary challenge.
Part One: Rivera pisses off the Suits
Our story starts in the autumn of 2010, when Miami-Dade county prosecutors and Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) agents first started giving Rivera the squint-eye for what appeared to the law enforcement officers — and to the Miami Herald, which had expressed some concern about discrepancies between Rivera’s stated income and his financial disclosures – to be campaign finance fraud. Meanwhile, Rivera, a politician who had been around long enough to be a familiar face in his jurisdiction, was in the process of campaigning for a congressional seat (and he won).
Rivera spent thousands of dollars a month on four different credit cards from 2006 to 2010, and dipped into at least $65,000 in campaign funds to pay personal credit card bills for restaurant checks, medical expenses and vacations with his girlfriend. As the Miami Herald reports, “The agents also believed that Rivera used campaign funds to pay for expenses that also had been billed to the state, which covers travel and other costs for lawmakers doing legislative work. They estimated that Rivera double-billed the state for more than $25,000 — an accusation Rivera repeatedly denied.”
According to a July 15th Miami Herald article by Scott Hiaasen and Patricia Mazzai: “In the summer of 2011, the arrest of U.S. Rep. David Rivera seemed all but certain. Agents with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement had waded through piles of credit-card receipts and banking records, tracing thousands of dollars from Rivera’s political campaigns to his personal accounts. Miami-Dade prosecutors were preparing a “draft” complaint charging the Republican congressman with 52 counts of theft, money laundering and racketeering. [...] Attorneys ultimately concluded that they could not charge Rivera with felony theft for double-billing the state, because state law allows only misdemeanor charges for abusing state travel vouchers — with a short two-year statute of limitations that barred prosecution for many transactions.” Due to Rivera’s excellent team of lawyers and the statute of limitations, Rivera escaped arrest, though he remains the target of a variety of federal investigations by the FBI and IRS.
Part Two: Rivera inserts a fake Democrat into an election
Rep. Rivera, perhaps emboldened by the fact that he had not yet been forcibly checked into the Gray Bar Hotel and issued some lovely orange pajamas, appears to be involved in yet another shady scheme: Puppetmaster! A hotel administrator at South Beach’s Wyndham Garden named Justin Lamar Sternad — a man completely unknown to local political insiders — began running as the strangest Democratic candidate imaginable, with his fliers touching on several typically Republican talking points (like immigration and making English the official language of the United States).
“Sternad’s campaign has been suspicious from the start. He is not an active Democrat, does not campaign publicly and has sent racially divisive and misleading mailers,” Jeff Garcia, spokesman for Joe Garcia said. “Now Sternad has broken the law and failed to file his campaign reports; this is a serious matter considering how much money he is spending. Sternad’s campaign appears to be little more than another dirty trick by David Rivera.”
An August 4th Miami Herald article by Marc Caputo explains:
Just how Sternad came on the scene and how the hotel administrator is paying for at least five mail pieces is unclear. His campaign-finance reports with the Federal Elections Commission don’t appear complete. [...] Sternad doesn’t answer his cell phone. He doesn’t answer his campaign phone, which has a generic standard voice-mail greeting that gives no indication about Sternad or his campaign. He was a no-show two weeks ago at a Miami Herald editorial board interview attended by the other Democratic Rivera challengers: [Joe] Garcia, Gloria Romero Roses and Gustavo Marin.
[One Sternad mailer says:] “Lamar Sternad is the only Democratic candidate that was born and raised in the United States. He will advocate for English as our official language. Americans in Florida are being discriminated against by employers who hire illegal immigrants and take jobs away from our law-abiding citizens.” The mailer is inaccurate in that Garcia was born and raised in the United States.
Another mailer, attacking Garcia over his divorce, repeats Rivera’s criticisms that Garcia left his wife, Aileen, as she had cancer. Divorce records indicate she petitioned for divorce and, because she has contributed and hosted a fundraiser for him, the separation appears amicable. You wouldn’t know that from the mailer…the political nobody newcomer sure acts like a longtime political hatchet man with a lot to lose.
Strangely enough, “Democrat” Sternad is using right-wing talking points to attack Democrat Joe Garcia — some of the same talking points Rivera has used against Garcia in the past — and he chose the same Hialeah, Florida-based printing company to design and produce his mailers and fliers (Rapid Mail and Computer Services) that Rep. Rivera chose in 2010 to print $113,200 worth of Rivera campaign promotional materials (and Rapid Mail’s owners have donated to Rivera’s political campaigns).
The Rivera campaign denied all involvement: “Joe Garcia is obviously becoming unhinged and delusional. [...] Congressman Rivera has never met or spoken to Mr. Sternad and knows absolutely nothing about him or his campaign.”
An August 14th Miami Herald Blogs article by Marc Caputo elaborates: “Suspected of being a ringer in the Democratic race to face GOP Congressman David Rivera, Justin Sternad [...] won’t explain how he can spend big in a campaign with a minuscule budget. [...] So far, he has sent at least six pieces out in the Key West-to-Kendall District 26 race. How does he afford all this? [Sternad refuses to explain.] “Kiss my ‘lily-white’ ass,” Sternad said by email. [...] It’s a violation of campaign finance laws to receive and spend money without reporting it.”
As noted in an August 6th Miami Herald Blogs article by Marc Caputo: “Justin Lamar Sternad has sent out campaign mailers claiming he wants to support President Obama’s agenda, but the president’s campaign team doesn’t seem too interested in helping the suspicious candidate for Congress who appears to have misappropriated the president’s campaign logo. ”We have not endorsed or authorized the use of any campaign materials by this candidate and are notifying him that he must stop using it immediately,” [said] an Obama For America campaign official. [Sternad failed to respond to phone calls from the Obama campaign.]”
As reported in an August 7th Miami NewTimes Blogs article by Karl Munzenrieder, “Despite being a white guy named Justin, he’s prominently using his middle name Lamar, a name prevalent among African-Americans, in his campaign. Broken links at the bottom of VoteLamar.com link to now-deleted Twitter and Facebook accounts that use the name Justin. JustinSternadforCongress.com now redirects to VoteLamar.com. Odd.”
Rivera and Sternad both vehemently denied that Sternad was a plant, but Garcia’s campaign — and many Democratic observers and reporters — were increasingly coming to believe that was untrue. There were too many connections to be made, and Sternad’s odd reluctance to criticize Rivera during interviews hit a sour note. Instead, Sternad attacked Joe Garcia: ”It would be pretty pretentious or arrogant of me to start going after David Rivera’s jugular like one of the other candidates, Joe Garcia, is doing. He’s mudslinging. And I want to get through the primary. And then we’ll tackle David when we get to that point. Right now, I see the problem with Joe Garcia is he’s a three-time loser. He hasn’t won anything. One-two-three, you’re out. But in his case I think he thinks one-two-three he’s in.”
An August 14th Miami Herald Blogs article by Marc Caputo outlined a few more Rivera – Sternad connections:
Sternad said by email that GOP consultant Ana Alliegro is running his campaign. Unable to be reached via cellphone or Twitter, Alliegro has been called a “friend” by Rivera.
She’s also a former girlfriend of sometime-Rivera pal/rival, state House candidate and former state Sen. Alex Diaz de La Portilla. Her outfit is called “OnTarget Hispanic Marketing, Inc.,” an interesting niche, considering that one of the mailers Sternad sent out had immigration-hardliner English-first language that would make most Miami Hispanic consultants a little nervous in Miami. Alliegro [...] appears nowhere on his expenditure reports.
Part Three: Garcia wins the election despite Rivera’s ringer; Rivera is implicated in shenanigans
As reported in an August 14th Huffington Post article by Nick Wing, ”Sternad’s campaign has been suspicious from the start. He is not an active Democrat, does not campaign publicly and has sent racially divisive and misleading mailers,” a spokesman for Garcia told the Herald. (Sternad also denied his campaign was behind robocalls [primarily sent to Anglo households, promoting his] candidacy [which] played a message of Garcia speaking in Spanish; [...] a nice way to annoy voters and turn them off to Garcia.)
“Now Sternad has broken the law and failed to file his campaign reports; this is a serious matter considering how much money he is spending. Sternad’s campaign appears to be little more than another dirty trick by David Rivera.” [...] Sternad lost to Garcia in the Democratic primary race for Florida’s 26th Congressional District. Garcia finished with over 50 percent of the vote. Challenger Gloria Romero Roses took second with more than 30 percent, while Sternad finished in third with just over 10 percent of the vote.”
A retired FBI agent, Hugh Cochran, president of Campaign Data, told the Miami Herald that Rivera contacted him several times by phone and email and asked him to produce a mailing list — the same mailing list given to Rapid Mail in Hialeah and used for Sternad’s direct mail flier campaigns. Cochran also confirmed that Rivera told him that the data was not for Rivera but “for Lamar [Sternad],” which contradicts Rivera’s and Sternad’s claims that they didn’t know each other.
The president of Rapid Mail, John Borrero, told the Miami Herald that Rivera was “directly involved” in the Sternad mail campaign, and had paid for six of the mailings — which cost on average about $5,000 each — with envelopes stuffed with cash; Borrero commented that he was shocked because he’d never seen so many loose $100 bills before.
An August 21st, a Miami Herald article by Manny Garcia and Marc Caputo said:
The [Sternad] campaign mailed at least 11 fliers [funded by more secretive cash] totaling at least $43,000. Nearly all of the mailers were paid for in cash as well. [...] Experienced campaign workers and campaign-law experts say they’ve never heard of a campaign paying cash for mailers. “Candidates don’t just show up with cash and say print me some mailers,” [said Mark] Herron [a veteran elections-law lawyer who has represented more than scores of politicians and candidates].
A candidate or conspirator who knowingly and willfully “falsifies, conceals, or covers up by any trick, scheme, or device a material fact” in a federal election can face up to five years in prison, according to federal law. Federal investigators specifically consider “surreptitious means, such as cash, conduits, or false documentation, to conceal” a contribution or expenditure a crime, according to a guidebook published by the Federal Elections Commission. [...]
Sternad’s wife is unemployed, they have small investments and they’re supporting five kids, according to his campaign records. Sternad, who earned $30,000 as a hotel worker last year, loaned himself nearly $11,000 for his campaign. All but $822 was spent on the state fee to qualify for office. [...] It’s unclear where the nearly $43,000 for the mailers came from. He never reported any work by Rapid Mail or Campaign Data. Nor has he reported expenditures for his de facto campaign manager, Ana Alliegro. Alliegro was also involved in paying for Sternad’s mailers in cash — as much as $7,000 — delivering envelopes containing crisp $100 bills.
“I have absolutely nothing to say to you,” Alliegro told a [Miami] Herald reporter before she hung up the phone. Sternad’s use of Alliegro — who describes herself on Twitter as “a Republican Political Guru and Conservative Bad Girl!” — was a sign he wasn’t running as a typical Democrat. Still, his campaign was effective enough to earn him 11 percent of the vote.
At this point the FBI and Miami-Dade police took interest in Rep. Rivera — again — and opened new criminal investigations into his activities. The Feds interviewed Cochran and Borrero and collected Sternad’s campaign invoices and financial records. Sternad, who is also currently under federal grand jury investigation, has, so far, refused to comment and has directed all inquiries to his lawyer Rick Yabor…who has ties to Alliegro (Yabor ran unsuccessfully for a County Judge seat and paid Alliegro as a consultant)…who has ties to Rivera. How coincidental!
According to an August 23rd Tampa Bay Times article by Marc Caputo and Manny Garcia with Patricia Mazzai: “Rivera strenuously denied the allegation [...] in a televised interview [...] insisting that he has no connection to the Sternad campaign, claiming Borrero lied and that the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald produced “nonsense and slander” in league with Garcia’s campaign. [...] Rivera — who denies ever knowing Sternad — also produced a copy of a new campaign report for Sternad that purported to show, for the first time, that the Democrat’s campaign had paid Rapid Mail. [...] Rivera didn’t explain how he got the report, and Federal Elections Commission officials told the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald on Wednesday that the document had not been received yet by the FEC.”
An August 23rd Miami NewTimes Blogs article by Karl Munzenrieder notes that “[although] Rivera apparently has access to these FEC reports, the [Miami] Herald cannot find them online” and an August 24th Huffington Post article explains: “Just because Sternard has filed an amended [FEC] report, it doesn’t mean that the FBI has finished examining the case, according to legal experts. [R]egardless of whether a report has been amended, it is still unlawful to knowingly and willingly file a false federal campaign report in the first place.”
An August 23rd DailyKOS article elaborates on the story:
Rep. David Rivera is worried about his Democratic opponent Joe Garcia, so he gets a fake Democrat to run in the primary and pays for mailers with cash-stuffed envelopes. The mailers go to black neighborhoods in an attempt to syphon Garcia’s strong African American support. If enough such voters vote for the fake guy, then a weaker Democrat wins the primary. [...] It didn’t work, and now Rivera is trying to convince people that he had nothing to do with the thing he had everything to do with. He’s being, uh, less than persuasive.
Miami-Dade police is investigating, but given how the entire South Florida criminal justice system conspired to let Rivera off the hook last year, don’t expect much from that corrupt crowd. On the other hand, the FBI is on the case, and that spells serious trouble for Rivera. (Not to mention, they’re already investigating him on a separate matter, so three investigations in two years.)
We got to wondering when the deadline was for Rivera to get off the ballot, assuming things are going to get a lot worse for him and Republicans are going to want a not-crook on the ballot. David Nir looked it up. Once primary results are certified, candidates can’t get off the ballot. That happened … this morning. The GOP will go into the election with [Rivera], not the non-criminal they’ll wish they had when this is all said and done.
Part Four: Where In The World Is Ana Alliegro?
As the authorities turn up the heat on Rivera and Sternad, one of their key witnesses — who had agreed to come in and have a little chat — has fled: Ana Sol Alliegro did not show up for her scheduled tête-à-tête with the Feds, and not even her lawyer Mauricio Padilla knows where she has gone. Agents raided Alliegro’s apartment in Miami and removed her computer and mobile phone and some other interesting items, and the next day, Alliegro was nowhere to be found.
Alliegro and Rep. Rivera used to be spotted socializing together around town, she had uploaded photos of the two of them to her Facebook account, and she had also once used a picture of herself with David Rivera as a Facebook profile picture. Now that Alliegro is on the lam, one of her Tumblr posts seems wistful and oddly pertinent: ”In 6 months I am leaving Miami in search of new adventure. Not sure where but I hope I find my own ‘Prince Charming’ before I croak. I think it would be lovely to keep good company. I am kind of sad today. Yet, that’s the way it goes. “A Malos Tiempos Buena Cara“. Hugs to all -I might take a break for a few days until I figure out the eternal question. Why me? And what was I thinking?” (source)
Some more details, from a September 8th Miami Herald article by Manny Garcia and Marc Caputo:
Prosecutors believe Alliegro played a key role as a go-between for Rivera and a former Democratic congressional candidate who might have broken campaign finance laws in his failed bid against a rival of the Republican congressman in the Aug. 14 primary. Alliegro had been scheduled to testify Thursday before a federal grand jury in Fort Lauderdale, but Padilla worked out a deal to speak directly to lead prosecutor Thomas J. Mulvihill and two FBI agents.
Padilla, [Alliegro's] family said, was to pick her up since she had no car and a suspended license. But her mother called her lawyer to say her father would drive her. Guedy Alliegro said investigators had previously met with her daughter to serve her a federal subpoena and arrest her for a suspended driver’s license. “Who gets arrested for that?” she asked. “Ana is innocent. She really doesn’t have anything to offer. She is being harassed for political interests.”
Miami police said Saturday morning that no one has filed a missing person’s report.
Ana’s colorful past is outlined in a September 24th Tampa Bay Times article by Marc Caputo, Manny Garcia and Scott Hiaasen:
When Justin Lamar Sternad met Ana Sol Alliegro at a Kendall Ale House, he didn’t know the political consultant would help lead his campaign into the FBI’s crosshairs or that she had prior legal run-ins — including the time she shot at her ex-husband while naked. [...] Now she’s missing or has been in hiding for the past two weeks, according to her family and lawyer, who said they’re “worried” about her. [...] Alliegro initially planned to cooperate with the FBI and make a statement on Thursday, Sept. 6. But she was a no-show.
Alliegro is a key figure in a federal investigation of Sternad’s campaign finances that focuses on the funneling of tens of thousands in cash tied to U.S. Rep. David Rivera. [Sternad] lost the Aug. 14 Democratic primary race to Rivera rival Joe Garcia, who faces Rivera in the Nov. 6 general election for the Kendall-to-Key West seat. [...] The investigation into Sternad’s campaign concerns laws prohibiting money laundering, intentionally filing false campaign reports and conspiracy. No charges have been filed against Sternad, Alliegro or Rivera. [...]
Two weeks ago, right after FBI agents raided her apartment and seized her computer, Miami Police arrested her on an old warrant for driving with a suspended license. She spent the weekend in jail, where she complained about the smell and view from her cell. In 2009, she was arrested for shoplifting. [...] In January 2007, she was arrested in a dispute with her ex-husband, Moshe Cosicher. [...] Alliegro wanted to get remarried. ”We are going to Vegas,” she told Cosicher [but] when Cosicher refused, she grabbed a gun [...] then sat naked at a desk with her leg up and compared the gun to a male sexual organ. [...] She fired a round into the ceiling. ”She shot at me when I approached the front door (she missed my head by inches),” Cosicher wrote in a police statement. ”Sometimes women – they get upset,” Cosicher said two weeks ago during a brief interview. He has declined to comment further.
Before Alliegro vanished, however, she gave the FBI a gift:
A key witness in a federal grand jury case involving U.S. Rep.David Rivera is still missing, but she left important evidence behind for investigators: at least four envelopes that had been stuffed with unreported campaign cash. Ana Alliegro, a Republican political operative, delivered the cash-stuffed envelopes to a Hialeah mail house that sent out fliers in a congressional race against a Rivera political rival, the mail house owner told the FBI. The FBI has the envelopes to check for fingerprints and handwriting comparisons.
Also in the hands of FBI agents: at least six invoices initially made out to the attention of David Rivera — all marked paid “cash” — to cover the mailings for Democratic primary challenger Justin Lamar Sternad, a suspected Rivera straw-man candidate. The congressman demanded that his name be removed from the invoices with Wite-Out, documents and interviews show.