‘Ghost’ candidate, 2 operatives face charges in shill candidate scheme

Political strategist James Foglesong is among those facing charges in a shill candidate scheme. (Seminole County Sheriff's Office)

A former no-party-affiliated state Senate candidate and the chairman of the Republican Party of Seminole County are among the three people who were arrested in connection to the shill candidate scheme in Central Florida.

The scheme is similar to that in two state Senate races in South Florida, where so-called “shill candidates” were planted on the ballot to confuse voters.

Jestine Iannotti, who was the non-party-affiliated candidate in the state Senate race for District 9 back in November 2020, is now facing several charges along with two political operatives.

Iannotti is facing six counts, including two counts of perjury and two counts involving the acceptance of campaign contributions. She was the third-party candidate running against current State Senator Jason Brodeur and Democrat Patricia Sigman in the 2020 election.

Brodeur won the race by 7,644 votes. Iannotti received 5,787 votes.

Political strategist James Eric Foglesong turned himself into the Seminole County Jail Tuesday morning and is now facing five charges, including campaign finance violations. Ben Paris, who is the chairman of the Republican Party of Seminole County, is facing one charge of making a contribution through or in the name of another in an election.

Tuesday’s arrests are the result of an investigation launched by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in July 2021.

According to the FDLE’s summary of the investigation, Iannotti received $1,300 in contributions and was being helped in her campaign by Foglesong. Two men listed as contributors denied giving money to Iannotti’s campaign directly.

Steven Smith, who says Paris is his cousin, told investigators he did not make the $200 contribution and instead was called by Paris, asking if he could use Smith’s name to “help a friend of his with some political campaign.”

Smith told investigators that Paris wanted to donate to a friend’s campaign but had already reached the campaign donation limits. He allegedly asked Smith if he could make the donation under Smith’s name.

Smith says he never received any money in exchange for Paris using his name. Smith told investigators that Paris instructed him that if anyone asked about the donation he was to say he had made the donation and “knew the candidate” and “thought she would be good for the county.”

Investigators note in their report that Paris was not the chairman of the Seminole County Republican Party during the 2020 election, but was the Vice President of Operations at the Seminole County Chamber.

State Sen. Brodeur served as the President/CEO of the Chamber at the time. Paris, who was also the Mayor of Longwood, had endorsed Brodeur for the District 9 seat in January of 2019. Paris was even listed on the senator’s endorsements page on his campaign website.

A second contribution of $100 was listed as being given by Todd Karvoski. He told investigators he never wrote a check and he’s “not even a registered voter.” Karvoski is friends with Foglesong and would occasionally meet him for drinks. Karvoski says no one asked him to use his name or address and he had never spoken to Foglesong about the contribution.

When investigators spoke to Foglesong, he told them he helped Iannotti on her campaign and said she “was a willing candidate who seemed serious about running as a candidate in the election.”

Iannotti told investigators she decided to “try something new” and see if she was “good at it.”

When it came to the contributions, Iannotti originally told investigators the money was all cash, but after going “off the record” to speak with her attorney, she told them she made the cash contributions and all other contributions were checks.

The change in statement is the basis for one of her perjury charges. Under state law, campaign contributions made in cash to a candidate cannot exceed $50 per election.

Iannotti’s second perjury charge stems from alleged false statements she made under oath about having “personally filed, filled out or submitted” campaign finance reports with the state. Text messages show Iannotti shared her campaign finance credentials with Foglesong.

The race for District 9 was financially connected to state Senate races for both District 37 and 39 here in South Florida.

In the race for District 37, Alex Rodriguez was the non-party-affiliated candidate on the ballot for the race between Republican Ileana Garcia and incumbent Democrat Jose Javier Rodriguez. Garcia would go on to win the race by just 34 votes after a hand recount. Alex Rodriguez received more than 6,000 votes.

Local 10′s investigation into the non-party-affiliated candidates was traced back to dark money donors and led to the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office opening an investigation.

That investigation ended with Alex Rodriguez and former State Senator Frank Artiles facing charges for their roles in the scheme.

It’s alleged that Artiles offered to pay Rodriguez $50,000 to run as a non-party-affiliated candidate. Rodriguez is now set to testify against Artiles and accepted a plea deal.

Artiles has denied any wrongdoing.

The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office has said there is no evidence to suggest Senator Garcia was involved or had any knowledge of the shill being planted in the race.

The Miami Herald first connected Artiles to the scheme after sources revealed to them that he attended the campaign party for now-Senator Brodeur in Central Florida on election night 2020. He allegedly told a crowd in Lake Mary, “That is me, that was all me,” when seeing the results of the District 37 race in South Florida.