Charges Filed In Gaetz-Linked Florida Ghost Candidate Scheme

Representative Matt Gaetz, a Republican from Florida, listens during a House Judiciary Committee markup on H.R. 7120, the "Justice in Policing Act of 2020," in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, June 17, 2020. The House bill would make it easier to prosecute and sue officers and would ban federal officers from using choke holds, bar racial profiling, end "no-knock" search warrants in drug cases, create a national registry for police violations, and require local police departments that get federal funds to conduct bias training. Photographer: Erin Scott/Bloomberg
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) listens during a markup on H.R. 7120, the "Justice in Policing Act of 2020," on June 17, 2020. (Photo by Erin Scott-Pool via Getty Images)

Three Floridians were charged Tuesday in relation to an alleged 2020 scheme to run sham candidates in local elections, part of a convoluted plot with murky links to Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL).

State prosecutors said in a press release that they charged political consultants Eric Foglesong and Benjamin Paris in relation to the scheme, as well as alleged sham candidate Jestine Iannotti, one of a series of no-namers to run in multiple state elections in Florida in 2020.

Gaetz has not been charged or formally accused of any wrongdoing in the case.

“In 2020, Rep. Matt Gaetz was traveling the country to re-elect President Trump and secure America First allies in Congress,” a Gaetz spokesperson told TPM in a statement. “He had nothing to do with recruiting a third-party candidate in a central Florida state senate race.”

The locale where the scheme allegedly took place could lend the charges national significance.

It’s Seminole County, the suburban Orlando area where Gaetz associate Joel Greenberg rampaged as tax collector, trying to turn the office into an outpost of cryptocurrency while allegedly participating in sex trafficking.

Iannotti ran for state Senate in Seminole County as an unaffiliated candidate. She faced two opponents: Patricia Sigman, a Democratic labor attorney, and current State Sen. Jason Brodeur (R), a Gaetz associate.

Iannotti ran without any real campaign. The limited promotional materials that were released show a beaming African American woman. Iannotti is white.

At the time of the election, Iannotti was not seen in public. It later emerged that she had reportedly applied for a Swedish residency permit before the 2020 election, and later moved to Stockholm.

Her absence – and questions about fundraising for her race – stoked speculation that she was a so-called “ghost candidate,” candidates who lack party affiliation and exist to channel off votes from other contenders.

That suspicion was only intensified by an April 2021 New York Times report which stated that Gaetz had discussed the Brodeur-Iannotti race with a Florida political consultant. The newspaper reported that Gaetz had discussed running a third-party candidate to help Brodeur secure victory.

Brodeur’s office did not return TPM’s requests for comment.

That report came amid a deluge of bad news for Gaetz, with reports that federal prosecutors were examining his possible involvement sex trafficking an underage girl. Gaetz has emphatically denied the allegations.

An investigative summary attached to charging documents in the case lays out the investigation in detail.

When investigators asked Iannotti about the source of contributions to her campaign during a voluntary October 2021 meeting, the summary says, she told them that Fogelsong had given her checks to deposit into her campaign account.

In fact, prosecutors said, the source of the campaign account funds was Iannotti herself. That led to a perjury count for Iannotti.

Benjamin Paris, one of the three charged on Tuesday, works for Brodeur, also in Seminole County. Per the press release, he is charged with one count of making a political contribution in the name of another.

Foglesong had a long career as a Florida political consultant, before facing charges in April 2019 for allegedly stealing $20,000 from the political action committee supporting a local sheriff’s race. Foglesong pleaded no contest in 2020. He did not return repeated phone calls requesting comment.

Foglesong was one of four donors to Iannotti’s campaign, state election records show. Foglesong faces five counts, the press release said. They are one count of making political contributions in the name of another, one count of commission of fraud, one count of unlawful use of a two-way communications device, one count of excess political contributions, and one count of false reporting.

Prosecutors provided text messages between Foglesong and Iannotti. In one instance, he told her that “we can take cash up to $100 per person.” The state individual contribution limit is $50.

Iannotti, the release said, faces six counts, including commission of fraud, accepting excess political contributions, two counts of perjury, one count of false reporting, and one count of accepting a political contribution in the name of another.

Florida saw potentially two other instances of ghost candidates in 2020. Prosecutors said last year that in one race, where the Democratic candidate lost by 32 votes, a Republican consultant paid $40,000 for a mechanic with the same last name as the Democrat to run. Both the sham candidate and the real Democrat had the last name Rodriguez.

In texts released by prosecutors, Foglesong appears to say that he was involved in the Rodriguez race as well.

“I want more npa folks on the ballot,” he wrote, referring to unaffiliated, third-party contenders.

In another 2020 race in Seminole County, this time against Greenberg himself, another alleged sham candidate with a similar name to the Democratic contender appeared. In that example, a man named Dani Mora Day ran against Lynn Moira Dictor, the Democrat.

After a federal indictment was filed against Greenberg in June 2020, the alleged sham candidate dropped out.

Read the investigative summary here:

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