FBI probing Fla. congressional primary funding

August 23, 2012 - 3:36 PM

MIAMI (AP) — The FBI is investigating whether a little-known Democratic congressional candidate improperly received thousands of dollars for campaign mailings from Republican U.S. Rep. David Rivera, a senior law enforcement official said Thursday.

At least one of the mailings from Justin Sternad's campaign was critical of the eventual Democratic nominee, Joe Garcia, who has previously tried to unseat Rivera in Florida's 25th congressional district that stretches from suburban Miami to Key West.

Authorities are looking into direct-mail and voter data services used by Sternad's campaign prior to the Aug. 14 primary, said the official, who has knowledge of the investigation but spoke only on the condition of anonymity to The Associated Press because the probe is ongoing.

The investigation was first reported by The Miami Herald. The FBI declined to confirm or deny the probe.

Sternad did not return a telephone call. Rivera has denied any wrongdoing or having any connection to Sternad's campaign.

Earlier this week, Sternad filed amended forms with the Federal Elections Commission indicating that he had loaned his own campaign nearly $64,000 — despite reporting relatively modest income and investments on other federal forms.

In a letter to the FEC, Sternad said he failed to report the loan earlier because he was waiting for a final spending tally.

"I have now received invoices for the expenditures and this amendment represents satisfaction of those invoices," Sternad said in the letter.

The amended FEC filing shows Sternad's campaign spent nearly $47,000 with Rapid Mail. That company's owner, Joe Borrero, told The Herald that Rivera was behind the mailings, and they were sometimes paid for with envelopes stuffed with cash. Borerro did not return a telephone call Thursday from the AP.

Hugh Cochran, the president of a voter list company called Campaign Data, told the newspaper that Rivera hired him to create the list eventually used for Sternad's mailings. Cochran, who also did not return email and phone calls, said he ran the voter list and emailed it to both Borrero and Rivera.

On Sternad's financial disclosure statement, he reported income of $14,490 through July from his job as night auditor at a Miami Beach hotel. The year before, the father of five reported earning $29,281 from two hotel jobs. He reported investment in a mutual fund but did not show taking any money out of it.

Rivera's campaign said in an email to the AP he had nothing to do with Sternad.

"Congressman Rivera has never met Mr. Sternad, has never spoken to Mr. Sternad, knows nothing about Mr. Sternad and has no connection whatsoever to Mr. Sternad or his campaign," the statement said. "Congressman Rivera will continue to focus on important issues facing our country, such as the need to improve the economy and create jobs."

In a subsequent phone interview, Rivera said Sternad's amended financial disclosure forms "speak for themselves and exonerate me from any false allegations that have been launched."

Federal law limits contributions from individuals to $2,500 per election, with serious criminal violations punishable by up to five years in prison. The FEC, however, often treats campaign finance violations as civil rather than criminal matters, imposing fines instead of seeking jail time.

The Sternad flap comes as Rivera remains under federal investigation for potential tax violations related to a $1 million contract he had with a Florida gambling company. A related state investigation earlier this year cleared Rivera of wrongdoing, although it raised many questions about his mixture of campaign and personal funds.

Despite no previous experience, Sternad finished third in the district's Democratic primary with 11 percent of the vote.

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