Shell Games, ‘Dark Money' and Efforts to Hide Attacks in Mayor Race

Millions of dollars in the Miami-Dade County Mayor race are coming from political committees and "dark money" groups.

The race for Miami-Dade mayor will be one of the most expensive in modern memory. 

The four major candidates - former mayor Alex Penelas, Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, Commissioner Esteban "Steve" Bovo, and Commissioner Xavier Suarez - and their political organizations have already spent $11.7 million combined for the Aug. 18 election according to county campaign finance records. 

The NBC 6 Investigators estimate another $2-$3 million are involved in the race through “dark money” groups and a complex shell game of state political committees. 

The non-profit A Better Miami-Dade Inc. has attacked Bovo and Suarez. The Limited Liability Corporation True Progressives LLC has attacked Cava. The political committees Citizens for Ethical and Effective Leadership PC and Defender La Justicia PC have attacked Penelas. They’ve all claimed the other candidates are responsible for shady politicking. 

From the top left, clockwise: Xavier Suarez, Daniella Levine Cava, Steve Bovo, Alex Penelas

The stakes are high.

The mayor of Miami-Dade is known as the second most powerful position in Florida, after the governor. The mayor sits atop a $8.9 billion budget, appointing the heads of 27 departments, and employing more than 25,000 people. 

Millions of dollars in county contracts are awarded every year and most elected officials making those decisions will be brand new. In 2021, Miami-Dade voters will have up to seven new commissioners and one new mayor after the incumbent Mayor Carlos Gimenez was unable to run again because of term limits. 

Interest groups either want to stay at the table or gain a place at the table when decisions are made. Their donors, not wanting to be caught on the wrong side of a donation and an awkward conversation with the eventual winner, have pumped campaigns full of money in increasingly secret ways. 

It is part of a system set up and allowed by Florida law preventing the public from knowing detailed information about where money comes from for what purpose. It’s a system many disagree with, but nearly every major political player participates in. 

A Shell Game of Political Committees

The gloves came off in June. Political committees are a common way candidates and their supporters can attack their opponents without putting their fingerprints directly on it. A confusing series of political committees formed on state documents to obscure who was paying for and organizing political smears. 

According to state records maintained by the Florida Department of State, Division of Elections, two state political committees have funded most of the negative advertisements against Penelas, Citizens for Ethical and Effective Leadership and Defender La Justicia. NBC 6 Investigators found those committees are largely resourced by two of the candidates, Commissioners Steve Bovo and Daniella Levine Cava, their political teams and allies. 

A screenshot of ad from the organization Defender La Justicia against former mayor Alex Penelas.

“I’m not here to play the victim. We’re in a political environment. I think I’ve been attacked unfairly in many regards,” Penelas said.

According to the state records, on Penelas’ left, the organization Defender La Justicia has spent more than $265,000 dollars also harping on corruption allegations during the prior Penelas administration; including an ad called “House of Lies.” That group is mostly funded by Levine Cava’s political organization, through a string of committee to committee transfers. 

Those records show money from Levine Cava’s organization, Our Democracy, was transferred between her consultant’s political committees, New Leadership for Florida and Engaged Florida, then through other progressive-aligned committees, People Powered Politics, Comite Politico, and Fighting for Florida Jobs, finally arriving in Defender La Justicia to pay for attacks against Penelas.  

During a recent news conferencePenelas called Levine Cava hypocritical for deriding dark money attacks against her while at the same time moving money through a complicated system to attack under a different name. 

NBC 6 brought that to Levine Cava. She said it’s “not similar at all.” 

“There’s nothing secret about my campaign dollars. I even passed the law to make sure that PC money would be transparent,” Levine Cava said. “Everything in my campaign is visible. You’ve reported on it. You know exactly what I’ve raised, from who, and how it is being spent.” 

The committee to committee transfers are part of a larger effort with the same mission, said Levine Cava’s consultant, Christian Ulvert. 

“The political committees I manage are supporting initiatives and committees that tap into the progressive excitement to see change in 2020. Our focus remains clear and our contributions reflect our mission and commitment to see fresh leadership,” Ulvert wrote in a statement. 

Citizens for Ethical and Effective Leadership has launched attacks against former mayor Alex Penelas.

According to the state documents, Citizens for Ethical and Effective Leadership has paid more than $523,000 to campaign and produce content; including videos with ominous music stating during Penelas’ former term in office “lobbyist and insider deals infected our county.” Penelas, throughout the campaign, has defended his time as county mayor and claimed corruption in Miami-Dade has increased since he left office.

While Commissioner Bovo’s own political committee, A Better Miami-Dade, has run a mostly positive campaign, he’s shifted more than $200,000 to Citizens for Ethical and Effective Leadership for the attacks. Outgoing Republican Speaker of the House Jose Oliva’s organization Conservative Principles of Florida has also pumped in $910,000 to that organization to campaign against Penelas and the future Republican Speaker, Danny Perez, in his reelection. NBC 6 Investigators have reached out to Oliva’s organization for comment but have not yet heard back.

When asked by NBC 6 why not publish the attacks under his organization Bovo said, “Look, these are financial components, which the finance people put together and however it works best for them. You know, PCs give to PCs,” Bovo said.

Bovo has often echoed allegations Citizens for Ethical and Effective Leadership has made against Penelas in debates, speaking with voters, and during interviews. 

Citizens for Ethical and Effective Leadership is run by David Custin, a well-known political consultant working for Bovo and Oliva. Both Custin and Speaker Oliva have been public about their effort to stop Penelas.

This confusing system of overlapping political committees overtime has become common practice in Florida political campaigns. An NBC 6 analysis has found more than $1.5 million flowing through political committees tied to the mayor’s race. However, it is nearly impossible for the public to follow the spaghetti path of paperwork to determine who the donors are, what race they’re involved in, who is benefiting, and what the donors want.

Two 'Dark Money' Groups

Both Commissioners Levine Cava and Bovo have “dark money” organizations attacking them and both point the finger at Penelas. Opaque campaign finance laws have not revealed any direct connection to his campaign. After the Supreme Court Decision known as Citizens United outside groups can easily find a way to  contribute campaign funds without revealing their identity.

The non-profit A Better Miami-Dade Inc. launched attacks against Bovo’s past ties to former Congressman David Rivera. A lawsuit alleges Rivera worked for the communist regime in Venezuela, which he denies. Rivera donated $1,000 to Bovo’s campaign. When the news broke, Bovo announced he “immediately” returned the donation. Adding insult to injury, the non-profit also has the same name of Bovo’s organization, A Better Miami-Dade PC. 

A screenshot of an ad from A Better Miami-Dade Inc, against Bovo’s past ties to former Congressman David Rivera.

Bovo’s lawyers have threatened legal action over similar claims directly from the Penelas campaign, including sending a cease-and-desist letter. 

“All this dark money, funky money stuff, the one who’s been attacked repeatedly with total B.S. stories have been me. But it hasn’t stuck because people know me. They’ve known me for twenty years. I haven’t been in some cave,” Bovo said.

Some of the anti-Bovo group’s videos have prominently featured Penelas in a positive light; while attacking Bovo. 

Because the anti-Bovo Better Miami-Dade Inc has 501c4 non-profit status, they do not have to reveal political donors until next year’s tax returns - long after the Mayor’s race. However, according to documents maintained by the Federal Communications Commission, the group has spent more than $140,000 on local radio and television advertisements against Bovo. 

Those documents show the Directors as Andres Osorio along with immigration attorneys Allison Norris and Ross Militello. 

An attorney for the group Matthew Sarelson, tells NBC 6, “This is much ado about nothing. We are fully compliant with state and federal law.” 

Sarelson says they plan to file their IRS documents next year per the law and notes they’ve registered with the name “A Better-Miami Dade” more than a year before Bovo’s political committee chose that name as well. 

Then, there is True Progressives, LLC, a group bombarding Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava with negative political mail pieces. 

Thirteen different mail pieces landed at Miami-Dade households in June and July.  After many interviews with state and national political operatives, NBC 6 estimates sending those would cost $1.4 million: at .55 cents a mail piece, for thirteen rounds to 200,000 registered democrats who are likely or probably to vote. True Progressives LLC also spent $14,286 for Facebook digital ads, according to the company’s ad library. 

True Progressives, LLC, a group bombarding Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava with negative political mail pieces. 

“There is no way of getting at who’s behind it and attacking with falsehoods,” Levine Cava said. “So sinister. So cynical.” 

True Progressives LLC is the newest organization to file according to Florida Department of State documents, filing in mid-June. They list their address to a small mailbox inside a UPS store on the West end of Miami-Dade County. 

The LLC is filed under a man by the name of Sean Anderson, through a lawyer, Michael Kirwan with Foley & Lardner. NBC 6 requested information on the group through the law firm and Anderson only responded with a comment. 

“Daniella Levine Cava is no better than Trump when it comes to lying about who you really are,” Anderson wrote, “Cava is not progressive, she’s a self-serving politician posing as one, and True Progressives’s mission is to expose frauds like Cava.” 

Both Bovo and Levine Cava allies tell NBC 6 they assume the groups are working in support of Penelas because of the timing of the ads: the dark money groups stopped running content within a thirty day window when they’d have to reveal donors.

The day after True Progressives halted their digital ads, Bold Vision (Penelas’s organization) picked up where they left off,” said Scott Arceneaux, a senior advisor to Commissioner Levine Cava.

When NBC 6 asked Penelas about those accusations, he denied any connection.

“I have no connection to those entities. Do I have criticisms of some of my opponents? Yes. By the way, I publish these criticisms with the name of my committee. I don’t do it behind any dark committee,” Penelas responded. 

Another major candidate in the race, Commissioner Xavier Suarez was particularly irked by the attacks against Bovo. He sent out a press release defending Bovo and called for all the candidates to stop using financial tricks. 

“The use of a tax-exempt organization is unethical and violative of the spirit, if not the law, of electoral legislation that requires disclosure of all donations to political action committees, also known as ‘PAC’s,” Suarez wrote in a press release. 

Penelas, even though the group attacking Bovo is promoting him, said he agrees with Suarez’s sentiment. 

“I think we should get all these dark money committees out of town. For that matter let's get rid of the soft money ones too,” Penelas said. 

NBC 6 has found no record of A Better Miami-Dade Inc or True Progressives LLC registering with the State of Florida elections, where they would have to disclose their donors. Per Florida law, groups participating in “electioneering” should register with the state. However, there are exemptions to the law. Staff from the elections department have not yet responded to repeated requests for information on the groups’ registrations and whether they are exempt under Florida law.

Patsies, Side-Hustles and College Kids 

Another reason why it’s difficult to get information on who is behind these organizations is their listed contact could be a campaign lawyer, someone renting their names out, or a “patsy.” Political operatives tell NBC 6 it’s common for college students or people beginning a political career to rent their name out as well, acting as a form of internship. NBC 6 Investigators found many well-known campaign lawyers listed as contacts for numerous of these groups. They didn’t respond to our requests for comment.

Earlier this summer, the Miami Herald reported that Carlos Condarco, press secretary for Congresswoman Donna Shalala was listed as the contact for both the pro-Penelas A Better Miami-Dade Inc. and the anti-Penelas Defender La Justicia. 

“My involvement in any political activities were outside the scope of my employment and done without the prior knowledge or consent of my immediate supervisors or the congresswoman,” Condarco told the Herald, “I have taken steps to remove myself from all campaign work not associated with the congresswoman, and I sincerely regret any involvement in these endeavors.” 

Afterward, Condarco’s name was removed as the contact. Now, both groups have a man named Andres Osorio as the contact. Multiple calls to Osorio’s listed number have gone unanswered. 

Another example would be the legal partners Jason Haber and Jason Blank, who are listed as the treasurer and the chairperson for Comite Politico, a group funneling money to Defender La Justicia.

Jason Blank is also listed as the contact for Mothers Stand Together PC, which is funneling money into Citizens for Ethical and Effective Leadership. Both groups are attacking Penelas but have different partisan ties. Calls to their law office have gone unanswered.

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