MIAMI — The details surrounding a political whodunit involving a former Miami GOP state senator, a mysterious no-party candidate and an alleged scheme to sway the outcome of a key Florida Senate race came pouring out Thursday in a 25-page affidavit.
The alleged campaign chicanery involved early morning Facebook messages, incriminating text messages and, at the heart of it all, tens of thousands of dollars in documented payments in exchange for a ringer candidate to get his name on the ballot.
Frank Artiles, a Republican political operative, is facing felony charges on suspicion of offering Alexis “Alex” Rodriguez $50,000 to run as an independent in Miami-Dade’s Senate District 37 race. The goal, investigators say, was to “confuse voters and influence the outcome” of the race to represent Senate District 37.
The race pitted former TV personality Ileana Garcia, a Republican, against incumbent Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Democrat. Alex Rodriguez, an auto-parts dealer who shares the same surname as the incumbent, ran as an independent. Investigators said Artiles recruited him to “siphon votes from the incumbent,” who lost by a mere 32 votes after a manual recount. Alex Rodriguez, who did no campaigning, received more than 6,000 votes.
“We are alleging that November’s Florida Senate District 37 election involved crimes,” Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said at a press conference Thursday.
The arrest warrant states that the actual amount paid by Artiles to Alex Rodriguez before and after the election totaled $44,708.03. Rundle said investigators “don’t know the origin” of the money. But court records say Artiles would repeatedly grab stacks of cash — ranging from $3,000 to $5,000 — from his home safe and give them to Rodriguez.
Investigators also continue to look into who paid for deceptive political mail advertisements that promoted Rodriguez’s candidacy and no-party candidates in two other key Florida Senate races.
Artiles is facing third-degree felony campaign finance-related charges connected to illegal campaign contributions and false swearing in connection with voting or elections, which carry sentences of up to five years if convicted. Alex Rodriguez is facing the same charges.
“Frank Artiles and his co-conspirators knew they couldn’t beat Jose Javier Rodriguez in a fair election so they rigged it,” said William Barzee, an attorney representing the no-party candidate.“Artiles cynically targeted and used a vulnerable ‘friend’ with a great name to run in the race in order to confuse voters and steal the election.”
Rodriguez, the Democratic incumbent, told the Herald on Thursday that the arrest represented, above all, the harm to voters who went into the voting booth and saw a name of a candidate who never intended to serve.
“This is the harm that was done to voters,” said Rodriguez, the Democratic incumbent. “These tactics are not new, but the brazenness is unprecedented.”
Florida Senate Republicans have distanced themselves from Artiles’ actions in recent days, and say they knew nothing about Artiles’ involvement in the race.
“We had no involvement, nor were we aware of outside involvement in the race,” said Erin Isaac, a spokeswoman for the political committee that runs Republican campaigns in the Senate, and Senate President Wilton Simpson, who heads the political committee.
Garcia, who passed her first bill in the Florida Senate on Thursday, did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Rundle said Thursday there is no evidence Garcia knew of Artiles’ alleged scheme.
Senate Democratic leader Gary Farmer urged leadership in the chamber to “begin a closer examination of these events.”
“And, if the charges are upheld and if these allegations are borne out, [the Senate should] take all steps necessary to ensure that no member is allowed to sit in the Senate if they were brought here through illegal methods,” said Farmer, a lawyer from Lighthouse Point.
Simpson told reporters he is waiting to see “all the facts” before he comments on the case.
In recent weeks, GOP legislative leaders and Gov. Ron DeSantis have made “election integrity” a top legislative focus. But Simpson sidestepped questions on whether Florida lawmakers, who are in the midst of the 2021 legislative session, should address the election issue of ghost candidates influencing Florida elections.
“This happens to be the topic of the day, so it will get accelerated based on the will of the Senate,” Simpson said.
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