Judge grants secrecy to certain messages collected during the investigation into Florida “ghost” candidates

ORLANDO — Communications between former Florida state senator Frank Artiles and approximately two dozen individuals and organizations, which were obtained by Miami prosecutors investigating an alleged race-vote siphoning scheme in the 2020 state Senate, will not be made public, a South Florida judge ruled Thursday.

Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Ariana Fajardo Orshan is also considering withholding publicly a list of Artiles’ contacts that prosecutors also seized. Fajardo Orshan said she expected to issue a ruling on the matter within a week, weighing the privacy rights of Artiles’ personal and professional contacts with the rights of journalists and others to access to the files.

The Miami-Dade State’s Attorney’s Office obtained a large cache of records, including messages and contact names, from Artiles’ laptops, phones, tablets and other personal devices. These records, which were provided to Artiles’ defense attorneys, would generally become public, as required by state law in a criminal case.

Related: Former Florida senator Artiles paid non-party candidate more than $40,000 and was charged with arrest warrant

But at the request of Artiles’ attorneys, Fajardo Orshan agreed to allow people whose names, messages and other recordings were stored on the former senator’s devices to object to the release of those recordings, and about two dozen individuals and entities have done so.

In exempting these parties’ messages from public disclosure, Fajardo Orshan said they were “personal in nature” and unrelated to the case. Prosecutor Tim VanderGiesen said he does not plan to use any of those records in the state’s case against Artiles, which is due to go to trial in September.

The exception: Communications between Artiles and his friend Alex Rodriguez, who pleaded guilty in August to accepting bribes from Artiles to compete in a competitive race for the South Florida State Senate. will be made available to the public.

Rodriguez did not campaign but was championed as a progressive alternative to the party’s leading candidates in a publicity blitz that prosecutors say was aimed at siphoning off votes from Democrat Jose Javier Rodríguez, who ultimately lost to Republican Ileana Garcia by 32 votes.

Alex Rodriguez, who received more than 6,000 votes in the Miami-area race, has agreed to testify in the state’s case against Artiles.

Lawyers representing some of Artiles’ anonymous contacts told Thursday’s hearing that they were concerned that publishing their clients’ links to Artiles might imply that they were somehow involved. in the phantom candidate scheme or other wrongdoing.

But the lawyers representing the Orlando Sentinel and other news outlets have argued that potential embarrassment from Artiles’ contacts or fear of unflattering media coverage is not reason enough to protect public records from disclosure.

“The fact that someone is associating with Mr. Artiles is not a secret, not something to be protected,” said Dana McElroy, who represents the Miami Herald and other outlets.

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Artiles, who resigned from the state Senate in 2017 after a racist tirade against black colleagues at a Tallahassee bar, now runs a political consulting business and has other businesses.

Fajarado Orshan, who reviewed the records to make his decision, said they showed the former lawmaker was “a go-getter” who “works hard”, and that ambition is reflected in the breadth of his list of contacts and communications.

“I hate to use the word scammer, but he’s out there supporting his family,” Fajardo Orshan said.

The South Florida race in which Artiles is accused of paying Alex Rodriguez nearly $45,000 to run was one of three key state Senate races in 2020 — including one in central Florida. Florida won by Republican Senator Jason Brodeur of Sanford – in which candidates lined up to run. as independents but did not campaign.

Two political committees that received all of their funding from a nonprofit called “Grow United” sent out ads promoting independent candidates, portraying them as progressives in an apparent attempt to undermine Democrats in those races.

Another nonprofit called Let’s Preserve the American Dream Inc., which has close ties to the big business lobby group Associated Industries of Florida, donated $600,000 to Grow United which was used to pay for the ads .

Related: Bank documents shed light on black money group in Florida ghost candidate scandal

Earlier this month, Fajarado Orshan agreed to publicly release redacted bank documents for Preserve the American Dream after the group’s leader objected to their release. Records show large sums of money changing hands between key figures in the phantom candidate scandal in the fall of 2020, weeks before the election.

For example, Let’s Preserve the American Dream sent $30,000 to TMP Interactive, a company run by Jeff Pitts, then CEO of Matrix LLC. This 2020 Alabama-based political consulting firm counted Florida Power & Light, other major Florida corporations, and Associated Industries contributors among its clients.

A Pitts spokesperson did not respond to questions about the purpose of the payment to TMP Interactive earlier this month.

The payment to Pitts’ company was dated September 22, 2020. A week later, Preserve the American Dream sent $600,000 to Grow United, which Pitts and his colleagues at Matrix LLC controlled. A few days later, this group sent $550,000 to two political committees headed by Alex Alvarado, a Tallahassee-based agent.

Alvarado’s committees, which like Let’s Preserve the American Dream were based at Associated Industries of Florida headquarters from the Florida governor’s mansion, spent the money promoting Alex Rodriguez and two other low-key independent candidates. in crucial Senate races.

Late last year, the Miami-Dade State’s Attorney’s Office sent “forward” letters to Alvarado, Preserve the American Dream, Grow United President Richard Alexander and Dan Newman, a former fundraiser Democratic fundraiser who raised money for Grow United and now works with Pitts and other former Matrix operatives at Florida-based firm Canopy Partners.

These letters informed the recipients that they were also the target of the state investigation. No one except Artiles and Alex Rodriguez has been charged in the scheme.

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