A “ghost candidate” was paid nearly $45,000, often with stacks of cash, in a scheme to siphon votes for the State Senate district covering Key Biscayne in a race that flipped a seat from Democrat to Republican by just 32 votes, prosecutors said Thursday.
The “ghost” candidate, Alex Rodriguez, and former State Sen. Frank Artiles were charged with making a false sworn statement, making or receiving two or more campaign contributions in excess of the limits, and conspiracy to make two or more contributions in excess of the limits, prosecutors said. All of the counts are third-degree felonies punishable by a maximum of five years sentence.
The plot, according to State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, began in May of last year, when former State Sen. Frank Artiles reached out to Alex Rodriguez to run for office in District 37 because he had a similar-sounding name to the incumbent Democrat, Jose Javier Rodriguez.
Alex Rodriguez was living in Boca Raton when recruited to run in the district, telling Artiles he still had an old driver license showing an address in Palmetto Bay, according to the arrest affidavit made public Thursday.
Rundle was careful to note that running a “ghost candidate” to split votes is not illegal in Florida. Alex Rodriguez received 6,382 votes in the race, with 106 of them coming from Key Biscayne.
“Is it a dirty political trick? Absolutely,” Rundle said. She said any effort to challenge the results of the race would be a civil matter and outside of her office’s jurisdiction. She said prosecutors have not uncovered evidence that the winner of the race, State Sen. Ileana Garcia, was a part of Artiles’ plot.
But Democrats in Key Biscayne and Miami-Dade County were fuming, saying Garcia should resign and a special election be set while the investigation continues. Garcia did not respond to a request for comment.
“She absolutely 100% should resign,” said Jackie Kellogg, the head of the island’s Democratic Club. “This is our Watergate.” She said many Key Biscayne voters cast ballots for Alex Rodriguez intending to vote for Jose Javier Rodriguez.
Steve Simeonidis, the county democratic leader, echoed Kellogg’s call for Garcia to resign. “She is an illegitimate senator,” he said, saying that federal authorities should also investigate. “This was clearly a coordinated effort throughout the state” that involved other “ghost candidate” races.
Rundle could provide no information on the source of funds for Artiles alleged payments to Rodriguez, which included tens of thousands in cash, sometimes taken from Artiles’ safe, according to the affidavit. The affidavit also detailed a $6,798 dollar credit card payment to a Boca Raton Catholic school made on Artiles’ credit card after Rodriguez told Artiles “he needed money to pay his kid’s school.”
As of late Thursday, Rodriguez had posted bond, records showed. A defense lawyer for Rodriguez, William Barzee, said in a statement that 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. Alex Rodriguez deeply regrets allowing himself to be used in this way and hopes that by coming forth with the truth he can help to right these wrongs.”
Court records did not show the name of Artiles lawyer as of Thursday evening.
Tony Winton is the editor-in-chief of the Key Biscayne Independent and president of Miami Fourth Estate, Inc. He worked previously at The Associated Press for three decades winning multiple Edward R. Murrow awards. He was president of the News Media Guild, a journalism union, for 10 years. Born in Chicago, he is a graduate of Columbia University. His interests are photography and technology, sailing, cooking, and science fiction.