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Dark Money Dirty Tricks in Florida

A former state senator is facing felony charges for allegedly running a bogus candidate for a legislative seat.

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As Thomas Paine wrote in The Crisis, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” Amer­ican polit­ics are roil­ing with everything from an insur­rec­tion at the Capitol to a fever­ish attempt to make voting more diffi­cult for Amer­ican citizens in a major­ity of states. And yet Flor­ida still takes the cake.

Flor­ida contin­ues to distin­guish itself with some of the strangest polit­ical scan­dals. The influ­ence that Flor­ida sugar compan­ies have on state polit­ics have inspired both a novel and movie. As I have poin­ted out, in real life that sugar money has gone national and was poured into a super PAC that funded the failed Trump reelec­tion campaign. Flor­ida is also home to one of the worst judi­cial polit­ical scan­dals in history, forcing justices of the Flor­ida Supreme Court to resign over bribery involving dog racing.

Not content with that history of igno­miny, Flor­ida is bask­ing in new polit­ical sleaze. On March 18, ex-State Sen. Frank Artiles was arres­ted in Miami for his alleged role in bank­rolling at least one fake candid­ate during the 2020 elec­tion. Artiles’s home was also raided by police. As former gubernat­orial candid­ate Gwen Graham tweeted, “FYI, the @Flor­id­aGOP have been orches­trat­ing these ‘shill candid­ate’ schemes for years. This time they got caught.”

Accord­ing to a warrant published by local press, Artiles allegedly paid candid­ate Alex Rodrig­uez to run as an inde­pend­ent because he had a confus­ingly similar name to the incum­bent Demo­cratic candid­ate who also had the last name Rodrig­uez (his full name is Jose Javier Rodrig­uez). The Demo­crat lost the race and asked for the elec­tion to be invest­ig­ated in his conces­sion speech. Prosec­utors found that the allegedly bogus candid­ate did no campaign­ing and yet pocked around $50,000 from Artiles, and now both are facing felony counts includ­ing Flor­ida campaign finance viol­a­tions.

Incum­bent Rodrig­uez lost the elec­tion by just 32 votes, and the “shill” candid­ate Rodrig­uez got 6,382 votes, argu­ably chan­ging the outcome. Some Demo­crats in Flor­ida are call­ing for the Repub­lican who won the seat through this trick­ery to resign so that there can be a special elec­tion to fill the seat.

As the Miami Herald repor­ted, Artiles allegedly bragged about getting Alex Rodrig­uez, a former registered Repub­lican, into the race. One of the reas­ons that Artiles might have been over­con­fid­ent about getting away with this gambit is the $50,000 was paid through a dark money conduit called Procliv­ity Inc. The plot thick­ens because after the 2020 elec­tion accord­ing to Politico, Procliv­ity Inc. changed its name to Grow United Inc.

Press reports indic­ate that Artiles may have executed this trick­ery in more than one elec­tion. In the other Flor­ida Senate race with a bogus candid­ate named Jestine Iannotti, the candid­ate was white but the campaign sent out mail­ers with a stock image of a black actress and then targeted the mail­ers at Demo­cratic voters. Just like in the Alex Rodrig­uez case, candid­ate Jestine Iannotti did not campaign at all. The Orlando Sentinel indic­ates that prosec­utors are invest­ig­at­ing this second race too.

This Flor­ida scan­dal has a link to broader national trend of the explo­sion of dark money in polit­ics. As Open Secrets recently repor­ted, on closer inspec­tion the 2020 elec­tion, which initially looked like it had a low level of dark money, only had a low level of repor­ted dark money. The group now estim­ates that $1 billion in dark money was spent in the 2020 cycle. This doubles the amount of dark money that was spent over the previ­ous decade in a single elec­tion.

But these state races at issue in the Artiles scan­dal matter for national polit­ics as well, since who is in charge of the Flor­ida legis­lature will redraw congres­sional district maps based on the 2020 Census, and Flor­ida is poised to get more repres­ent­a­tion in Congress. Further, on the state legis­lat­ive front, Flor­ida has followed the regress­ive trend of rolling out restric­tions on voting.

Polit­ics is wild enough without fake candid­ates being run for partisan advant­age. Hope­fully the message gets out that hood­wink­ing voters is no way to build trust in demo­cracy. Another lesson to be learned is Flor­ida should tighten up its campaign finance disclos­ure rules so that the next person temp­ted to pull a scheme like this is disin­centiv­ized by the sunlight.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not neces­sar­ily those of the Bren­nan Center.