State says it’s set for trial in South Florida ‘ghost’ candidate case

TALLAHASSEE — More than two years after former state Sen. Frank Artiles was arrested on campaign finance violations in a covert scheme to unseat Miami-Dade Democratic Sen. José Javier Rodriguez, the Palmetto Bay political operative may finally get a trial date.

Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Ariel Rodriguez will decide on Friday what comes next in the case that carries the potential for jail time for Artiles, 50. He has pleaded not guilty to campaign finance charges alleging he paid his friend, Alexis Pedro Rodriguez, a Boca Raton auto parts dealer, to run as a no-party affiliated candidate in the 2020 Senate District 37 race against the incumbent with the same last name.

The goal of the scheme, prosecutors allege, was to “confuse voters and influence the outcome” of the race in the district that has since been redrawn but at the time included a large swath that included downtown Miami, Coral Gables and Pinecrest.

The 2020 race pitted former TV personality Ileana Garcia, a Republican, against the incumbent, who lost by 34 votes after a manual recount. Alex Rodriguez, who did no campaigning, received more than 6,000 votes.

The Miami-Dade investigation, and a similar one conducted by prosecutors in Central Florida, not only snared top political operatives like Artiles, it also raised questions about how political consultants like Pat Bainter, whose Data Targeting firm runs campaigns for Senate Republican leadership, and top GOP pollster Ryan Tyson, a key adviser to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ presidential campaign, manipulate the state’s porous campaign finance system.

The state charged Artiles and Alex Rodriguez with conspiracy to make or accept campaign contributions in excess of legal limits, accepting and making excess campaign contributions, false swearing in connection to an election and submitting false voter information. Under state law, each of those charges carry sentences of up to five years in prison if convicted.

Alex Rodriguez pleaded guilty last year to charges he took $44,000 to enter the race. He also agreed to testify against Artiles.

State says it’s ready but not defense

After an investigation of more than two-years, Miami-Dade State Attorney Kathy Fernandez Rundle is “ready to go to trial’’ in the Artiles case, said spokesman Ed Griffith. But Artiles’ attorneys told the Herald/Times they are not ready for trial and will ask the judge to continue the case.

“There are a number of tasks that still need resolution before we embark on a trial,’’ said Jose M. Quiñon, one of Artiles’ lawyers.

Despite the lengthy trial delay, the evidence collected also goes beyond questions about Artiles and his role to defeat a Democrat targeted by Tallahassee Republican leaders.

Documents released by the Miami-Dade state attorney, and a similar case against a ghost candidate in Central Florida, have shown how political operatives from both parties manipulated campaign finance laws to direct money into efforts which their donors not only did not know about but with which they might not agree.

One example came to light in an interview with Miami Democratic political consultant Josh Weierbach by Miami-Dade investigators. He told them in 2021 that he asked no questions when, two weeks before the 2020 general election, the political committee he was operating to elect Democrats, Florida Watch, had reached its spending cap and had extra funds to spend on other campaigns.

At the suggestion of Democratic fundraiser Dan Newman, Weierbach said he transferred $115,000 to the political committee Grow United, Inc., a non-profit committee controlled by political consultant Jeff Pitts, then an employee of the Alabama-based political consulting firm, Matrix, that had been hired by Florida Power & Light.

Follow the money

Shortly before the 2020 election, voters in Senate Districts 37 received mailers designed to appeal to José Javier Rodríguez’s prime constituents, liberal Democrats. The mailers promised the no-party candidate would “fight climate change, hold the police accountable [and] guarantee a living wage.”

Weierbach told investigators he was not aware that Grow United, which by law did not have to disclose its donors, was funding an effort to defeat José Javier Rodriguez because he “understood José Javier Rodriguez was safe at the time.”

But in questioning by Assistant State Attorney Tim VanderGiesen, Weierbach also acknowledged that Florida law allows that money donated to one nonprofit political committee can be transferred to another that does not have the same political purpose.

“So the donor may not get what they want, but they won’t find out until it’s over at that point, right?’’ VanderGiesen asked.

“That’s correct, sir,’’ Weierbach answered.

A key player in Grow United’s funding scheme, the records show, was a nonprofit called Let’s Preserve the American Dream, run by Tyson and funded heavily by Florida Power & Light.

In 2019, José Javier Rodriguez earned the ire of Florida Power & Light’s then-CEO Eric Silagy when he filed a bill to introduce competition into the utility-controlled solar energy market. In a leaked 2019 email obtained by the Miami Herald and Orlando Sentinel last year, Silagy told two of his vice presidents that he wanted them to “make his life a living hell.”

On Sept. 24, 2020, Tyson texted a poll to FPL and Matrix employees showing Rodriguez tied with his GOP rival — and the spoiler candidate, Alex Rodriguez, taking 4% of the vote.

“We are going to charge full speed ahead,” John Holley, Florida Power & Light’s vice president of state government affairs, replied.

Days later, Tyson had donated $600,000 to Grow United, which in turn passed on $550,000 to two Florida political committees that funded the mailers, according to internal Matrix emails and state campaign-finance records.

In a sworn statement to investigators Tyson denied the $600,000 donation was linked to the mailers. Court documents obtained by the Miami Herald in connection with the state attorney’s investigation show that in 2020, Let’s Preserve the American Dream paid Artiles $125,000 for “research” and paid Grow United $1.15 million.

FPL’s name appeared nowhere on the mailers. But documents obtained by the Miami Herald and the Orlando Sentinel from a whistleblower affiliated with the Alabama-based consulting firm Matrix LLC, show that the money from the mailers could be traced back to Grow United.

FPL has repeatedly denied having a role in the 2020 ghost candidate scandal. In 2018, it financed a spoiler candidate in an attempt to defeat Democratic incumbent Daniella Levine Cava for her seat on the Miami-Dade County Commission.

Miami-Dade investigators told the Herald/Times this month that although they issued a target letter to Tyson, Newman and another political consultant who worked with FPL and Matrix, Richard Alexander of Pullman, Alabama, their investigation did not lead to discovery of any criminal violations by them.