Florida shill candidate scheme: Dark money divided among 5 beneficiaries

Dark money sent to a Central Florida printer was divided up amongst five beneficiaries, according to new court documents released by the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office in its ongoing investigation into the shill candidate scheme.

Back in November, Local 10 News 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 siphon votes from Democratic candidates. Each of the candidates was financially supported by dark money.

The nearly $550,000 payment was wired to Luis Rodriguez, who owns Advanced Impressions. Rodriguez is also the stepfather of Alex Alvarado, a Republican strategist based in Tallahassee who established the two political action committees (PACs) named The Truth and Our Florida, according to court documents obtained by Local 10 in late July. Both PACs received the money from Grow United and both paid Advanced Impressions for flyers.

In a sworn statement, Luis Rodriguez said $549,960 was sent in two separate wire transfers he believed to be initiated by Alvarado. Rodriguez told investigators “somewhere between $220 to $250,000” was paid to a mail and printing company in Miami to produce the flyers for the non-party affiliated candidates in three state senate races.

In late November, Local 10 spoke to Luis Rodriguez’s former employer, Martix2 in Doral who said they had also done political printing for Alvarado.

According to Rodriguez, Ryan Smith of 96 Consulting and Marketing, a company based in Tallahassee, sent the art for the flyer along with the mailing list through Alvarado. Rodriguez said he paid Smith $99,600 via check. On the company’s website, Smith is described as, “an accomplished political operative steeped in Republican and conservative politics…”

Alvarado Strategies was paid $65,211.54 while Preservation Association Management, a company owned by Tallahassee political operative Ryan Tyson received $26,500. Both payments were for a “referral fee.”

Rodriguez told investigators he pocketed the remaining $136,000.

Two sworn statements from shill candidate Alex Rodriguez were released as well. In his interview with investigators, he detailed how former state senator Frank Artiles allegedly offered him $50,000 to run as a non-party affiliated candidate in the race for District 37. The alleged offer happened in May 2020.

A second Miami-Dade race also had a non-party affiliated candidate connected to Artiles. In the race for District 39, Celso Alfonso filed to run but told Local 10′s Glenna Milberg it was to fulfill a life-long dream of running for office. In a sworn statement to investigators in December, Alfonso’s wife, Maricela Cardenas, who served as his campaign treasurer said the same. Cardenas said she knew Artiles as a client at her spa and told investigators they received no money from him. She said Artiles assisted them with paperwork and answered questions for them.

The third race with an alleged plant was in Central Florida’s race for District 9. Non-party affiliated candidate Jestine Iannotti received financial support identical to the third-party candidates from District 37 and 39.

Alex Rodriguez told investigators that his financial situation at the time was “dire,” noting he was paying expenses like monthly rent, groceries and a rental car through his company.

“He laid out for that he wanted me to run for State Senate,” Alex Rodriguez said in the December 2020 statement. “And, if I was interested, he would compensate me with $50,000. $25,000 before the election, $25,000 after the election. And he told me that the candidate in that particular state senate had the same last name as I. If I was interested.”

He told investigators with the state attorney’s office that Artiles’ noted he shared the same last name as the Democratic incumbent state senator Jose Javier Rodriguez, which was part of the strategy to siphon votes.

In his statement, he said Artiles “spoke despairingly” of Jose Javier Rodriguez and said “this will help get our candidate.” Investigators asked Alex Rodriguez if then-candidate and current state senator Ileana Garcia was mentioned by Artiles, to which Rodriguez responded, “I don’t think so. I don’t recall.”

The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office has said they do not believe Sen. Garcia had any role in the scheme. Sen. Garcia won the seat for District 37 by just 34 votes after a recount in the November 2020 election. More than 6,000 votes went to Alex Rodriguez.

It was during the recount, that Local 10′s Glenna Milberg went looking for Alex Rodriguez. He detailed that encounter for investigators saying he was on the phone opening his business door when she arrived. He said he was “startled” and eventually lied about his identity.

“I didn’t even know what the heck was or why it was,” Rodriguez said in the sworn statement. “Once she asked me, ‘Are you Alex Rodriguez?’ I panicked. I’ve never been in a situation like that. So I told her, ‘No, I’m not.’

Alex Rodriguez said Milberg stayed for a few minutes but after she left, he called Artiles to tell him. He told investigators Artiles told him not to worry and, “We knew this was going to happen. It’ll all get worked out.”

He told investigators he was “rattled” and eventually Artiles told him to get an attorney.

The two would turn themselves into authorities in March 2021 to face felony campaign finance charges just a day after a search warrant was executed on Artiles’ home. Hours later, Artiles posted his $5,000 bond. He has pleaded not guilty.

In late August, Alex Rodriguez accepted a plea deal with the state attorney’s office. He will be on probation for 36 months and house arrest in exchange for his testimony against Artiles.

“I’m sorry for my actions,” he said in court. “I want to apologize to my family, my loved ones, my friends. And I would like to publicly offer a sincere apology to the residents of Florida District 37, including the former Senator Jose Javier Rodriguez, to the people of Miami-Dade County, the state of Florida, and anyone else who was affected or harmed by my actions.”

Alex Rodriguez can cut down his probation from three years to one if he provides everything he promises to against Artiles. Without the deal, entered before Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Andrea Wolfson, Rodriguez was facing a possible 20 years in prison.