Orlando Sentinel: Lawmakers call for crackdown on ‘deceptive’ mailers following Florida ‘ghost’ candidate scandal

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Washington, February 16, 2022 | comments
U.S. Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-FL, and Gerald Connolly, D-VA, are asking U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy to consider increasing identification requirements for people purchasing political mail and establishing a public database that would list people who design and market mail pieces as well as the beneficiaries of the ads.
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Two members of Congress are calling on the U.S. Postmaster General to crack down on “deceptive mail practices” that allowed operatives to deliberately conceal their identities and send more than 500,000 mailers promoting “ghost” candidates in three Florida Senate districts in 2020.

U.S. Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-FL, and Gerald Connolly, D-VA, are asking U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy to consider increasing identification requirements for people purchasing political mail and establishing a public database that would list people who design and market mail pieces as well as the beneficiaries of the ads.

In calling for the changes, Wasserman Schultz and Connolly cited the “ghost” candidate scheme in three competitive Florida Senate races, where GOP operatives promoted independent candidates as progressives in an apparent attempt to siphon votes from the Democrats in those races.

“Deceptive political mailers are, unfortunately, a common part of our country’s electoral process,” Wasserman Schultz and Connolly wrote in a letter sent Wednesday to DeJoy. “In a small number of contests, however, malicious political actors so egregiously abuse the U.S. Postal Service through the use of political mailers that it distorts electoral outcomes.”

Florida’s dark money playbook: How ‘ghost’ candidate scheme revealed secretive political tactics

Wasserman Schultz and Connolly, the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Government Operations, which oversees the U.S. Postal Service, wrote that the postal service also needs to better enforce current reporting requirements, which demand disclosure of the designers, marketers and beneficiaries of political mailers.

Despite potential criminal or civil penalties for failing to report this information, much of it “appears uncollected,” they wrote.

“There must be accountability when fraudulent, intentionally deceptive mail is sent,” Wasserman Schultz and Connolly wrote. “Proper administration of current rules is a good place to start.”

Last year, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s office filed charges against former lawmaker Frank Artiles, accusing him of paying a friend nearly $45,000 to run as an independent candidate in a competitive South Florida state Senate race in 2020. Artiles’ payments to Alex Rodriguez, which were not recorded on campaign finance reports, violated election finance laws, prosecutors said.

Rodriguez pleaded guilty in August and agreed to testify in the state’s case against Artiles.

Prosecutors said the scheme was intended to confuse voters in the Miami-area district, siphon votes away from the Democratic incumbent, José Javier Rodríguez, and help Republican Ileana Garcia, who won by 32 votes. Alex Rodriguez received more than 6,000 votes.

South Florida voters received mailers championing Alex Rodriguez as a progressive who would “fight climate change,” “hold the police accountable,” and “guarantee a living wage,” even though Rodriguez did not campaign. Similar ads went to voters promoting independent candidates in two other Florida Senate districts, including Central Florida’s Senate District 9, where Republican Jason Brodeur defeated Democrat Patricia Sigman.

The advertisements were sent by two political committees chaired by young women who told South Florida investigators they played no role in running the groups and were paid for the use of their names on official committee documents.

The operative who paid the women for the use of their names and ran the committees behind the scenes, Alex Alvarado, has received a letter from prosecutors with the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office notifying him he’s also a target of their investigation.

The committees received all of their funding from an Alabama-based dark-money nonprofit organization that was run by consultants who were working closely with Florida Power & Light executives in 2020.

The man who appears as the nonprofit’s chairperson on official documents, Richard Alexander of Cullman, Alabama, is the brother of one of the consultants and also has received a letter from Miami-Dade prosecutors saying he is a target of their probe.

Besides Artiles and Alex Rodriguez, nobody else has been charged in connection with the scheme.

Wasserman Schultz said in the statement she and Connolly hope to work with the U.S. Postal Service to increase reporting requirements to help prevent “mail system abuse” in elections.

“Laws were broken to promote several ‘ghost candidates’ in Florida races, and these bad actors relied heavily on leveraging the mail system to manipulate voters,” Wasserman Schultz said in the statement. “Enforcing existing disclosures requirements, and adopting common-sense transparency rules could have discouraged this abuse, or forced them into the light before voters decided these races. We can help our democracy if we arm the public and press with more knowledge about who buys mail ads.”

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