Florida’s 11 Democratic Party members of the U.S. House of Representatives are calling for an investigation by the Justice Department into what they call ‘sham candidates’ in several Florida Senate races, including one in Miami-Dade County that landed a former senator behind bars.
The request, led by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz from Broward County and co-signed by the state’s other 10 members from the Democratic Party, ask Attorney General Merrick Garland to launch an investigation after reports from several newspapers say as many as three races across the state may have been impacted.
“There are important unanswered questions regarding the original source of the money to fund this scheme, and whether the entity that provided the funding was in violation of any federal campaign finance laws or Internal Revenue Service codes,” the letter read in part. “Unlike the dangerous, baseless claims of voter fraud impacting the 2020 Election, in this case, evidence actually exists that a multi-state fraud conspiracy was committed against Florida’s voters.”
Members of the Miami-Dade County Democratic Party organized an event Monday at the offices of Sen. Ileana Garcia in Southwest Miami-Dade, asking for Garcia to step down after the scandal involving a “ghost candidate” on the ballot last November.
Get South Florida local news, weather forecasts and entertainment stories to your inbox. Sign up for NBC South Florida newsletters.
Former Senator Frank Artilies, who once represented District 40 in the Senate, was arrested last Thursday and accused of violating state election laws related to his alleged support of a bogus candidate. Artiles, 47, was booked into a Miami-Dade jail on multiple charges, including making or receiving two or more campaign contributions in excess of the limits and conspiracy to make or receive two or more campaign contributions in excess of the limits among others.
Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said Artiles helped to plant Alex Rodriguez as a candidate in a Miami-area state Senate race to defeat the Democratic incumbent last year, offering to pay him $50,000 to run for the position.
Rodriguez faces the same charges as Artiles.
The District 37 race was won by Garcia by just 32 votes over Democrat Jose Javier Rodriguez in the 2020 election out of about 215,000 votes cast. Rodriguez, an auto parts dealer, ran as a non-party candidate and has the same last name as the Democrat.
Artiles helped Alex Rodriguez, who was living in Boca Raton, to falsify qualifying paperwork, using an old driver's license that reflected Rodriguez's old Palmetto Bay address, Fernandez Rundle said.
"Running a ghost candidate like Alex Pedro Rodriguez is not a crime in Florida," Fernandez Rundle said. "These things are not crimes. Is it an attack on our democracy, is it a dirty political trick? Absolutely. This kind of trick is always used against an existing office holder. It's to confuse the public."
Artiles had Rodriguez change his party affiliation from Republican to Independent, gave Rodriguez $2,000 to open a campaign bank account, then flew to Tallahassee to file Rodriguez's campaign paperwork with the state's department of elections, Fernandez Rundle said.
Over the course of the election season, Artiles gave almost $45,000 to Alex Rodriguez, Fernandez Rundle said.
"What is a crime is making illegal campaign contributions to get a candidate to run," Fernandez Rundle said. "Sadly, Frank Artiles knew he could manipulate Florida's election system, that is the most blatant aspect of this dirty election trick but as I said it is not a crime in Florida."
Fernandez Rundle said there was no indication that Garcia was part of the alleged plot.
In 2017, Artiles resigned from the state Senate after using racial slurs in a conversation with two Black legislators in a Tallahassee bar. Then it was revealed Artiles used money from his political committee to hire a former Playboy model and Hooters girl as a consultant.
Artiles served three terms in the state House from a Miami-Dade district and then was elected to the Senate before his resignation. Before that, he served in the Marine Corps.