Could The Gaetz Mess Really Be Connected To The Florida Sham Candidate Scandal?

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 27: U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) speaks to members of the media outside the hearing Michael Cohen, former attorney and fixer for President Donald Trump, testifies at before the House Committ... WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 27: U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) speaks to members of the media outside the hearing Michael Cohen, former attorney and fixer for President Donald Trump, testifies at before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform at Rayburn House Office Building February 27, 2019 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Last year Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison and ordered to pay a $50,000 fine for tax evasion, making false statements to a financial institution, unlawful excessive campaign contributions and lying to Congress as part of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential elections. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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April 9, 2021 3:32 p.m.

Call it a harmonic convergence. Or simply too good to be true.

There are some indications that two scandals roiling Florida politics may actually be connected, tying the federal probe of Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) to a slate of sham candidates that cropped up across the state in 2020.

Could that possibly be? This may not be the scandal we want, but is it possibly the one we deserve?

In one, we have the rapidly emerging degeneracy of Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), who is facing a federal probe into allegations that he paid for a 17-year-old to travel across state lines in exchange for sex. Meanwhile, the “wingman” who reportedly got Gaetz into this mess appears poised to enter into a cooperation agreement with the feds.

And in the other, there’s an equally bizarre but perhaps more typical political scheme: a plot to run sham candidates across Florida to siphon votes away from the Democratic Party candidates.

It’s not clear how closely the two are connected. But what may bring them together is a confluence of money, Gaetz’s political connections, and a man loudly bragging at a Florida bar.

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Let’s rewind to the sham candidate scandal. Last month, Florida prosecutors charged former GOP state Sen. Frank Artiles with a scheme to hire a man with the same last name as a Democratic state Senate incumbent to divert votes away from that incumbent.

The sham candidate — Alexis Rodriguez — received 6,000 votes and finished third, while the incumbent — José Javier Rodriguez — finished second, 32 votes behind the GOP nominee.

But in charging documents, prosecutors suggested that Artiles, who is accused of paying Rodriguez $44,000 to run, wasn’t the true source of those funds.

So, what might this have to do with Gaetz?

Rodriguez was one of several sham candidates that popped up across Florida in October 2020 and were subsequently identified by Local 10 News, a Miami ABC affiliate, though the Rodriguez race was the only one in which the fake candidate affected the outcome.

But per the New York Times, federal prosecutors are investigating a conversation that Gaetz allegedly had about the possibility of a third-party candidate running in another part of Florida — Seminole County. A third candidate ultimately ran in the district of Jason Brodeur, a Florida GOP state senator.

According to the Times, Gaetz discussed with Chris Dorworth, a local lobbyist, the possibility of running a third candidate in Brodeur’s race. In that race, Jestine Iannotti ran without party affiliation but received support through a massive mailing campaign which portrayed her as a Democrat, Politico Florida reported.

There’s nothing wrong with third-party candidates. And, as of yet, it’s not clear that Gaetz’s conversation is connected to Iannotti’s run.

But there is one thing about Iannotti’s run which makes it more interesting, and raises the possibility of a link to the other sham races around Florida, including the one Artiles was allegedly involved in. Both her run and Rodriguez were backed by an extensive mailing and flyer campaign to get the word out about the candidates.

This is where it gets stranger.

Local 10 News found a curious series of campaign finance transactions.

A Georgia-registered firm called Proclivity, with a UPS box address in Atlanta, made only two political contributions last cycle in Florida.

Proclivity contributed $180,000 to a state political committee called “The Truth” and $370,000 to another political committee called “Our Florida,” according to a review of state campaign finance records, first conducted by both Politico Florida and Local 10 News and confirmed by TPM.

Neither of the committees reports any other contributions except one each from Proclivity. Both entities were created during the 2020 election cycle.

What makes this odder, both outlets reported, is that each committee has a single expenditure in exactly the same amount that was contributed to it by Proclivity: $180,000 by The Truth, and $370,000 by Our Florida.

Both committees spent that money on the same vendor: a mailing company called Advance Impression LLC, registered to a home in suburban Orlando. Advance Impression has not done any other political work apart from the two committees, local reporting and records show.

Advance Impression LLC did not return TPM’s request for comment.

Local 10 News’s report suggests that the two PACs — Our Florida and The Truth — ran the mailer campaigns. And even though the financial trail here is striking — $370,000 in, $370,000 out — it’s not precisely known whether that money was used for the mailing campaigns that gave Rodriguez and Iannotti political legs.

But the broader point as it relates to Gaetz is this: campaigns for both the Rodriguez race in which two people have been charged and the Brodeur race in which Gaetz allegedly discussed running a third-party candidate appear to have interesting parallels.

Could there be a connection? It’s not clear. Florida is a big state, and there’s not necessarily anything wrong about a candidate running for office without intending to win. Beyond that, while Gaetz reportedly discussed running a third-party candidate, and Iannotti was the only third-party candidate in the race, there’s little detail about the conversation beyond that, or whether any plans developed from it.

That being said, part of the reason we know as much detail about these sham candidates as we do is thanks to Frank Artiles, the man behind Rodriguez.

It’s because of him that we have reason to believe Rodriguez was paid to run, in part because he loudly bragged about his plot at an election night party in November 2020.

Which candidate was hosting that party? Jason Brodeur.

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