A disgraced south Florida politico allegedly pays an auto parts salesman to run as a spoiler candidate.
It’s a story with fake Land Rover purchases, bar fights, and a PAC called “Veterans for Conservative Principles” with a Playboy model and Hooters waitress on its payroll.
There’s also a nagging mystery at its core.
People who know those charged — ex-Florida Senator Frank Artiles and sham candidate Alexis Rodriguez — tell TPM that neither of the two had the means to pull off the scale of the alleged fraud, in which Artiles paid Rodriguez more than $44,000 to run against a Democratic state Senate incumbent with the same last name.
What’s more is that the Rodriguez campaign was boosted by an unknown, outside company called Proclivity. That anonymously owned, Georgia-registered firm arguably made all the difference, contributing $550,000 to two committees whose only activity was bankrolling a mailer campaign that constituted the entirety of Rodriguez’s political effort.
The result was stunning: the incumbent Rodriguez lost to GOP candidate Ileana Garcia by 32 votes, as the doppelgänger Rodriguez took in 6,000 votes.
But still, Miami-Dade County State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle told reporters on Friday, the “origin” of the money used to get Rodriguez into the race and marshal support for the auto parts dealer remains unknown.
And even after two people have been criminally charged, we don’t know: who was behind this? And who was willing to put up hundreds of thousands of dollars to ensure that Democrats stayed in the Florida state Senate minority?
Pugilists and deadbeats
Before police raided his home on Wednesday, before he surrendered to the authorities on Thursday, and before he bonded out later that night, Artiles had made a name for himself in Florida.
A state representative and then state senator, Artiles brought to the local GOP a series of bar fights and scandals before a combination of the two ended his political career.
One 2015 incident was typical: Artiles was accused of “sucker-punching” a college student on spring break in Florida.
LJ Govoni, a Florida beer financier who witnessed the incident, declined to comment to TPM about the incident beyond tweets he posted at the time.
— LJ Govoni (@LJGovoni) March 3, 2015
The then-representative responded with denials and threatened to sue Govoni at the time.
Artiles’s career progressed to new heights from there. In 2017, he had a brief scandal after his political committee — Veterans for Conservative Principles — hired a Playboy model and a Hooters “calendar girl” as “consultants” to his campaign.
But that imbroglio was overshadowed by an incident that same year in which Artiles used a racial slur during an angry disagreement at a bar while speaking with two Democratic, African-American senators. Artiles resigned in the aftermath of that, and founded a political consulting firm to work as a lobbyist in Tallahassee.
So it was in a May 15, 2020 Facebook message that, according to police, he turned to a longtime acquaintance with a request: “Call me,” Artiles allegedly wrote to Rodriguez. “I have a question for you.”
An arrest warrant details that interaction, and says that Artiles and Rodriguez have known each other for decades.
The warrant describes how Rodriguez was promised a total of $50,000 by Artiles to run as a sham candidate against a Democratic incumbent with the same last name. It also describes how he came to believe that Artiles was trying to get a cut of the cash.
In one episode described by police, Artiles told Rodriguez that he was trying to buy a Range Rover for one of his two daughters. Rodriguez, an auto parts salesman, was worried he wouldn’t get his share, and lied about having found one in Jacksonville worth $10,900.
Artiles took the bait, and paid Rodriguez for the imaginary Range Rover, police say. According to the warrant, Artiles eventually paid Rodriguez $44,708 to run as a sham candidate. That does not include the amount Artiles paid Rodriguez for the nonexistent Range Rover, which police considered to be separate from the alleged illegal campaign contribution scheme.
Rodriguez, the arrest warrant says, was in a “dire” financial situation.
One man who knew Rodriguez told TPM a similar story about him.
Alejandro Blanco, a procurement officer at a Texas company which sells supplies to oil and gas firms in South America called Entech Supply, told TPM that Rodriguez had offered his company an auto parts deal but never went through with it.
Blanco said that Rodriguez had approached him with an offer to sell parts, but disappeared with $10,000 without delivering.
“For us it was a really bad experience, we lost money,” Blanco said.
A review of court records found that Rodriguez had been charged with grand larceny in Miami twice before pleading out.
Where’s the money?
Rodriguez and Artiles teamed up for the election, but everything else about the case remains a mystery.
Rodriguez, the mechanic, managed to garner his 6,000, race-deciding votes in part thanks to a series of mailers sent out by a Florida firm called Advance Impression LLC.
That same company sent fliers out for three other Florida candidates suspected of being shams created to fool voters.
But the funding for the mailing campaign remains shrouded. Two Florida political committees, The Truth and Our Florida, paid Advance Impression for the campaign, state disclosures show.
Those two committees sole donor was a Georgia firm called Proclivity, which contributed $555,000 to the two.
Some who know Artiles speculated that he would not have had the funds to undertake the half-a-million dollar campaign.
“Someone donated that,” Juan-Carlos Planas, a former Florida GOP legislator who once faced a similar sham challenge from a distant cousin of his with the same last name, told TPM. “And if Frank had it cash, the way it was given to him was not legal.”
“I want to know who paid the printer,” Planas added. “They’re one of the only ones who would have an idea.”
A call to Advance Impression, the printing company, went unanswered. As of this writing, nobody has returned the message.