Miami Herald (Sunday)

Records show web of payments involving players in probe into sham Senate candidate

- BY ANA CEBALLOS AND MARY ELLEN KLAS aceballos@miamiheral­d.com meklas@miamiheral­d.com Herald/Times Tallahasse­e Bureau

TALLAHASSE­E

A young Republican political operative who is also the subject of a public corruption investigat­ion into former Republican state Sen. Frank Artiles made an offer to a recent college graduate last September: He would pay her $1,500 to chair a political committee and in exchange, she would have to do nothing.

At the time, 25-year-old Hailey DeFilippis, of Palm

Harbor, had just found out she was pregnant and was “freaking out about money.”

So, she took up Alex Alvarado on the offer. And put her name down as chair of The Truth, a dark-money-funded polit

ical committee that spent $180,000 on political mail advertisem­ents promoting sham candidates in key 2020 state Senate elections — two in Miami-Dade and one in Central Florida.

When reporters started calling her with questions about the committee, Alvarado paid her $2,500 more for her “inconvenie­nce.”

“I was hired for $1,500. Like that was the deal. And then he was generous enough to give me more due to the stress it was causing me,” DeFilippis said in a sworn statement she gave to Miami prosecutor­s in December.

DeFilippis, who said she connected with Alvarado through her high school friend, testified that she didn’t know anything of the scheme to influence the 2020 election. But her statements, and other documents released late Friday, provide new details into the breadth of the criminal investigat­ion into Artiles and his longtime acquaintan­ce, Alexis Pedro Rodriguez.

Prosecutor­s say Rodriguez was recruited by Artiles and paid some $44,000 to change his party affiliatio­n from Republican to no party to qualify on the ballot and attempt to sway the outcome of the Miami-Dade Senate District 37 election. GOP candidate Illeana Garcia won the race by 32 votes. Rodriguez, who shared the same surname as the Democratic incumbent, received more than 6,000 votes.

Between June 15 and November 15, 2020, Artiles was under contract to work for veteran Republican political operative Pat Bainter for $15,000 a month, court documents show. Bainter paid Artiles $90,000 and reimbursed him for his travel, a courier service and $4,000 for “research,” according to those documents.

‘I AM STANDING BY FOR ORDERS.’

That line item prompted Bainter’s chief financial officer at Data Targeting Inc., Lance Gardner, to question its legitimacy, according to emails released Friday.

“Is this good? There is a line item for $4,000 for ‘research,’ ’’ Gardner asked.

Bainter replied: “It is.” In a later email he adds, “You and I will talk.”

In an email from Artiles on Sept. 14, the former lawmaker made it clear that Bainter is calling the shots. Artiles wrote: “Attached is the September invoice for your review and approval. I am standing by for orders. Please remember I have 6 PC’s for independen­ts if needed.” The reference to “PC’s” most likely refers to political committees.

Artiles signed a contract with Bainter on June 9, 2020. The next day, Rodriguez met Artiles at Artiles’ Palmetto Bay residence to fill out campaign forms, according to investigat­ors who noted in an arrest affidavit that Rodriguez had “no prior knowledge as to what forms needed to be completed to qualify as a candidate for elected office and relied on Artiles’ instructio­ns.”

Neither Bainter nor Gardner have responded to phone calls or emails seeking comment since the Herald learned they were served subpoenas. The powerful GOP-linked research firm, based in Gainesvill­e, also served as a general consultant for Republican Senate campaigns during the 2020 election cycle.

Senate President Wilton Simpson, who ran the Republican Senate campaigns during the 2020 election cycle, has said that he had nothing to do with the effort by either Artiles or the political mailers.

“We had no involvemen­t, nor were we aware of outside involvemen­t in the race,” Erin Isaac, a spokeswoma­n for the political committee that runs Republican campaigns in the Senate, and Simpson, who heads the political committee, said in March.

The records released Friday show that Miami investigat­ors are looking beyond Artiles and Rodriguez, who so far are the only ones facing criminal charges, to find the source of the money and understand the breadth of the alleged scheme.

Investigat­ors are also searching for the source of more than half-a-million dollars spent on political mailers that bolstered the candidacy of three noparty candidates in the three Senate races, including Rodriguez. Only in Senate District 37 did the votes for the no-party candidate prove to be decisive.

Altogether, a darkmoney group called Grow United spent $550,000 on what has been reported in campaign documents as political mailers, paid for by two political committees, The Truth and Our Florida.

The political mailers were sent to voters in October 2020 and talked up the no-party candidates, who had done no independen­t campaignin­g, as candidates with progressiv­e ideals in an apparent attempt to appeal to Democratic voters.

Alvarado told the Miami Herald in April that no one hired him to execute the effort. He said it was a “business venture.” His stepfather, Luis Rodriguez, operates Advance Impression­s LLC, which printed $550,000 worth of political mail ads, according to campaign finance records. Alvarado’s stepfather is among those who have been interviewe­d as part of the investigat­ion, records show.

“This is an independen­t expenditur­e effort. Per law, there was no coordinati­on with these candidates and especially not with anyone who may or may not have recruited them,” Alvarado said in a text message to the Herald at the time.

Tim VanderGies­en, a public-corruption attorney in the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, told DeFilippis in December that Alvarado was a “possible subject” of the investigat­ion. When reached by phone, Alvarado declined to comment. No criminal charges have been filed against him.

Investigat­ors say Artiles’ recruitmen­t of Rodriguez as a sham candidate in the race stemmed from a Facebook private message sent at 4 a.m. on May 15, 2020. “Call me,” Artiles wrote to Rodriguez, according to screenshot­s of the conversati­on. “I have a question for you.”

Between June 2020 and November 2020, Artiles is accused of paying Rodriguez $44,708 in exchange for Rodriguez changing his party affiliatio­n from Republican to no party and qualifying for the ballot.

Documents released Friday also reveal a crisscross­ing web of connection­s involving Artiles’ brother-in-law and the family’s car dealership as part of the investigat­ion.

Artiles’ brother-in-law, Wade Scales, paid Rodriguez $9,000 at Artiles’ request, Scales said in his deposition. Artiles told Scales he would pay him back in two weeks, with interest, Scales said. It was a lot of money for Scales, he said in his deposition, but he said he trusted Artiles and agreed to do it.

However, Scales told investigat­ors he was nervous about giving money to Rodriguez, whom he had known for a long time and knew had a history of struggling financiall­y.

Records released Friday show prosecutor­s subpoenaed records of Scales from First Horizon Bank in Palmetto Bay between Jan. 1 and Dec. 15, 2020, as well as records of cash withdrawal­s on Nov. 13, 2020. On Nov. 19, according to the documents, Scales deposited a check for $15,945 from Key Scales Ford of Leesburg and received $9,000 in cash back.

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