MIAMI – Why would candidates for Florida Senate seats do no campaigning, no fundraising, have no issue platforms, nor make any effort to get votes?
Local 10 News has found evidence to suggest three such candidates in three Florida Senate district races, two of them in Miami Dade County, were shill candidates whose presence in the races were meant to syphon votes from Democratic candidates.
Comparisons of the no-party candidates' public campaign records show similarities and connections that suggest they are all linked by funding from the same dark money donors, and part of an elaborate scheme to upset voting patterns.
In one of those races, District 37, a recount is underway because the spread between the Democratic and Republican candidates is only 31 votes. The third party candidate received more than 6300 votes.
That third party candidate is Alexis Rodriguez, who has the same last name as the Democratic incumbent senator Jose Javier Rodriguez. The Republican challenger is Ileana Garcia.
Alexis Rodriguez falsified his address on his campaign filing form last June. The couple who now live at the Palmetto Bay address say they have been repeatedly harassed since then by people looking for Rodriguez, who hadn’t lived there in five years.
Local 10 visited Rodriguez’s place of business Tuesday, where Rodriguez lied about his identity. Pretending to be a business partner, Rodriguez shed little light on his sudden candidacy in the District 37 race and lack of fundraising or campaigning.
Local 10 began investigating Rodriguez’s candidacy because of a hunch by Executive Producer Natalie Morera de Varona last month. She was collecting candidates' headshots for election broadcast graphics and was curious why a candidate was nowhere to be found, not returning phone calls.
A search of campaign documents filed by Rodriguez led to a money trail and campaign finance connections with other no-party third candidates in Florida Senate District 9 in Central Florida, and District 39 in Miami-Dade.
The District 39 candidate is 81-year-old Celso Alfonso, a retiree who named the woman he calls his wife as campaign treasurer. She owns a day spa, and the home where we found Alfonso Tuesday afternoon.
He, too, lied about his identity at first, and finally admitted to being the candidate.
Alfonso claimed he had a lifelong dream to be in public service. He said he filed on his own, that no one assisted him.
A comparison of candidates Alfonso and Rodriguez show unusual similarities.
Both filed as No Party Affiliated candidates, yet both had recently been registered Republicans.
Both qualified as candidate on the same day, June 12, 2020, by paying a qualifying fee.
Both listed Gmail addresses with identical patterns: first initial, last name and district number and 2020.
Both list one single contribution to their campaign; both contributions are $2000 self-loans, presumably to pay the filing fee.
Both candidates' support appears to come from the same Political Action Committee, “Our Florida” - that have no previous political contributions or expenditures listed. It is the PAC that paid for campaign fliers for the candidates, all done by the same Clermont, Florida mail house, Advance Impressions.
Celso Alfonso gave conflicting answers about campaign fliers, first claiming there were none, then claiming his own campaign paid for them, though that expenditure is not listed in his campaign finance report. An unlisted campaign expenditure could be a campaign finance violation.
That $370,000 PAC expenditure to the printing house on Oct. 5 is the sole expenditure of “Our Florida”. And the PAC’s only contributor is an entity called Proclivity, whose $370,000 contribution is listed two days earlier.
Proclivity lists an address that traces back to a mailbox in a UPS Store in Atlanta.
Florida law allows the group to keep people behind its money private.
Local 10 News could not locate any businesses registered in Florida or Georgia under the name Proclivity.
The end of the money trail leaves no information on who is ultimately funding at least three candidates for Florida Senate who did no campaigning and no fundraising, whose presence in the race might have recalculated the number of voters who cast votes for the Democrats in the race.
Alex Rodriguez received 3% of the D37 vote, more than 6300 votes. The race, currently in recount, has a margin of .02 between the Democrat incumbent and Republican challenger.
The race for D39 was decided by 12.3 percent, a large enough margin to make Celso Alfonso’s 1.5 percent of the vote moot.