A failed South Florida congressional candidate linked to former U.S. Rep. David Rivera was charged Friday with violating federal campaign finance laws by concealing the true source of thousands of dollars, accepting illegal contributions and trying to cover up the scheme with false campaign filings.
Justin Sternad, 35, surrendered to Miami agents Friday morning and appeared in court later in the day. Sternad, previously a political unknown, was a candidate in the Democratic primary for Florida's 26th congressional district that stretches from the Miami suburbs to Key West.
Federal prosecutors charged Sternad with conspiracy to violate federal campaign laws, making false statements and accepting illegal contributions. If convicted, Sternad faces up to five years in prison on each of the three counts.
"We are committed to promoting transparency and accountability from our elected officials and from those running for office," said U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer. "Our citizens deserve no less."
At the brief court appearance, Sternad's attorney Rick Yabor entered a not guilty plea for his client, who did not speak. Sternad is being released on $100,000 bail under an agreement with prosecutors.
The type of document used to charge Sternad, called an "information," typically indicates in federal court that a defendant is cooperating with authorities and plans eventually to plead guilty. But Yabor would not confirm that, saying only, "Time will tell."
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The FBI began investigating Sternad after The Miami Herald published stories last year that he had received money from the campaign of Rivera, a Republican, to use in the Democratic primary against eventual winner Joe Garcia. Garcia went on to win the primary and defeat Rivera, a former state legislator who was in his first U.S. House term.
Sternad received 11 percent of the vote in the primary despite being a political novice. Much of the cash involved went for campaign mailings targeting Garcia.
Rivera has denied any link to Sternad but is also under federal investigation for potential tax violations. Rivera's name does not appear in charging documents filed by federal prosecutors. Rivera did not immediately return a call to his cell phone Friday.
The court papers say Sternad accepted thousands of dollars in contributions from others but claimed on Federal Election Commission forms that they were loans from his own personal accounts. In the FEC documents, prosecutors said Sternad claimed he made loans of nearly $64,000 to his congressional campaign when in reality the total was less than $300.
Sternad initially did not list the contributions on FEC forms at all, then filed amended forms in August claiming they were loans. Yet on his initial congressional financial disclosure statements, Sternad listed income through July of last year of $14,490 from a job as a night auditor at a Miami Beach hotel. The year before, he said he earned $29,821 from two hotel jobs.
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