A controversial group with deep ties to Michael Flynn, the former Trump administration national security advisor, is actively campaigning in Key Biscayne, launching misleading political ads against a village council candidate over marijuana charges dismissed 28 years ago.
The group, County Citizens Defending Freedom USA, started in Polk County, Fla. But it has a local branch, whose executive director is a Key Biscayne resident, Alex Serrano. The CCDF hosted Flynn, who is under Congressional investigation for the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, at an event in Miami last year. The retired three-star Army general, pardoned by then-President Donald Trump after pleading guilty twice to making false statements to the FBI, continues to appear prominently on the CCDF’s social media platforms.
Flynn “is at the center of a far-right Christian nationalist movement” that advocates its members get involved in local politics, The Associated Press reported in a series earlier this month. Flynn has repeated slogans from the QAnon conspiracy group, which promotes baseless accusations that the U.S. is under the control of pedophiles who worship Satan.
The Flynn-backed CCDF pushed for changes to sex-ed textbooks in Miami-Dade schools and recently announced plans to sue the board over the issue, although a search of the court docket did not show any active litigation.
In Key Biscayne, the CCDF has focused its energy on council candidate Oscar Sardiñas, a member of the island’s Educational Advisory Board. Beginning with a series of taunting social media posts on NextDoor and WhatsApp, Serrano suggested Sardiñas was deceiving voters by using differing initials for his middle names.
Sardiñas has two middle names, Emilio and Luis, denoting different grandparents on his mother’s and fathers’s side. He said some family documents alternate between the two middle names, which he is trying to standardize. He said he stopped engaging with Serrano after speaking to him to answer his question.
Undeterred, the CCDF group then published a campaign broadside on the Substack newsletter site under the name “Key Biscayne Lightkeeper.” The ad asserted that using two middle names was evidence of an “alias” denoting “checkered and questionable identity,” overlooking the fact that many people have different middle names, famously the 41st president, George Herbert Walker Bush.
The CCDF continued its attack messaging with a second email blast that posted what appeared to be screenshots of criminal court records from Alachua County, stating that Sardiñas “sought to conceal his criminal past from voters.” But the screenshots of two marijuana charges had a glaring omission: they were cropped to hide the column showing the charges were dismissed. The 1993 case never went to trial, records show.
Last week, the case came up at a candidate forum at the OceanSound condominium. Some in the crowd of about 50 thought the question unfair, including Mayor Mike Davey. “It’s bullshit,” he said.
Sardiñas paused for a moment, then answered.
“I was erroneously asked to come into a police station and turn myself in. Immediately thereafter, there was discovery. And I was given an apology by the judge for having wasted my time.”
In an interview, Sardiñas said someone else had access to his apartment while he was a student at the University of Florida in Gainesville in 1993. That summer, he said, he’d been working in Maine. At the end of the case, months later, Sardiñas said he and his parents felt the $10,000 legal cost of expunging the dismissed charge was too high.
Court records obtained by the Independent confirmed his account. Circuit Court Judge Nath C. Doughtie ruled in a one-page order that “the State presented no evidence” to rebut the alibi.
Doughtie, now retired, quickly remembered the three-decade-old case, as well as his comment about it being a waste of time.
“My comments were directed to the State. Why waste time when the law is clear?” Doughtie wrote. “Politics has become nasty these days. This was a case that could not be proven as a matter of law,” he said.
Sardiñas said that for a time, he was reluctant to seek expungement, saying it didn’t stop him from moving forward in his career. Today, he views the matter differently and filed papers this July to have the case expunged.
“I don’t want to have my friends explain,” he said. “I don’t want to put people into these positions.”
The CCDF group, which lists a Coral Gables address, identified its two emails as “paid electioneering communications” but it has not filed a disclosure form with either the Key Biscayne village clerk, the Coral Gables city clerk, or the county Elections Department, according to officials at those agencies, a potential campaign violation. A database search of state political committees for the CCDF also did not show any filings.
Serrano, contacted by text and phone, declined to speak about his organization or answer any questions about the group’s involvement in island politics.
It’s not completely clear why CCDF has targeted Sardiñas, who ran for council two years ago. Sardiñas founded an educational foundation alongside his job working in sales and marketing for a tile distributor. He has not been outspoken on the kind of LGBTQ, COVID mask or vaccine issues that have irked the CCDF and other groups in the nation’s raging culture wars. But he does think teachers are underpaid and that teaching methods need to be updated.
“The school curriculum is antiquated,” he said. “It hasn’t evolved and kept up with the needs of kids.” He said schools need to do a better job of preparing students for the workforce, with a revival of vocational and financial literacy instruction.
Of his interaction with the CCDF, Sardiñas seemed to pine a bit for his 9th place finish in the 2020 election, his first run for office.
“I had a heck of a lot more fun two years ago.”
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.