The Political Rise And Fall Of U.S. Rep. David Rivera

The political rise and fall of U.S. Rep. David Rivera

Outgoing U.S. Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami, lived and breathed politics, but his penchant for playing the political game proved to be his ultimate downfall.

By Marc Caputo and Scott Hiaasen

For a decade, David Rivera was a political force to be reckoned with, the consummate operative who had a cat-like ability to survive any scrape — even as investigations swirled around him.

This November, the congressman’s ninth life expired.

Voted out of office as the FBI and IRS pressed on with probes into his personal and campaign finances, Rivera officially becomes a private citizen Thursday. Rivera could be charged soon, sources familiar with the investigation say.

Despite the ongoing investigations, Rivera has steadfastly denied he’s under any scrutiny and is already planning a comeback.

Rivera lived and breathed politics since and before his one term in Congress and four in the state Legislature. He was involved in every type of race: obscure party posts, local commission elections, contests for Florida House speaker, presidential races in the state and the winning campaigns of his close friend, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.

But Rivera’s penchant for playing the political game proved to be his downfall as well. Rivera often embroiled himself in needless schemes and some ultimately backfired, say friends, foes and former peers.

“At the end of the day, David’s cleverness was a liability. But until now, it was an asset,” said J.C. Planas, a fellow Miami Republican who served and clashed at times with Rivera from 2002-2010 in the Florida House.

Those who were even closer to Rivera, including Rubio backers, have anonymously described his schemes as bordering on “pathological” and “Nixonian.”

When asked about the comparison to former President Nixon, Rivera said by email “Don’t even know what that means.” He then added a “hee hee” laughter message that went on to reference a famous Nixon 1962 press conference after he lost a California governor’s race.

“But I do know this, you won’t have David Rivera to kick around anymore,” Rivera said.

It’s a vintage Rivera response: funny, edgey and laden with political depth. It also shines a light on Rivera’s mercurial nature, which has long concerned some Rubio backers. They’re relieved that Rivera’s political career could be over because it lowers the chances that Rubio — a vice-presidential shortlister in 2012 who won’t rule out a future White House bid — would get caught in the crossfire of a future controversy.

The two still own a Tallahassee home, which a bank started to foreclose in 2010 just as Rubio was running for Senate.

Asked what his biggest regret was, Rivera said: “None. But I do wish the DCD school funding formula had not been eliminated” — a reference to a nearly decade-old education policy that cost Miami-Dade schools.

While in office, Rivera filed false financial reports by listing a phony company that paid him phantom income, records show. He took a gambling-company payout in secret when he didn’t need to. And former campaign vendors say he was involved in a bizarre election scheme involving stacks of untraceable cash to help attack Democrat Joe Garcia, who ultimately beat him Nov. 6.

The FBI is investigating the latter two cases. The state ethics commission rapped him for 11 instances of non-disclosure in October. And he avoided a 52-count state criminal indictment for his use of campaign and public money when he was a state legislator.

Throughout, Rivera’s explanations often changed when it came to specifics. But his general response was the same: Denial of wrongdoing.

Even as polls showed he was in danger of losing, Rivera’s opponents and supporters thought he could still pull out a win or was at least dangerous.

“I feel like I’m chasing a ghost,” Jeff Garcia, campaign manager for Joe Garcia, repeatedly said, summing up the difficulties of dealing with the hard-to-hit Rivera.

“Never count out David Rivera,” said Rick Wilson, a Tallahassee Republican consultant.

Rivera planned to run for Miami-Dade Republican chairman last month, but fellow Republicans balked.

The chairmanship was won, instead, by Nelson Diaz, a friend of Rivera’s who declined to comment about the discussions they had concerning the party post. Diaz said Rivera is not just liked, “he’s loved” by many for his generosity, accessibility and hard-work ethic.

“As a member of Congress, David comes to all the party meetings,” Diaz said. “He’ll return anyone’s call; it doesn’t matter who you are.”

That was true of constituents as well. Rivera was well-known for solid citizen services as both a legislator and congressman.

Diaz said Rivera was particularly proud of helping fund a new medical school for Florida International University, his alma mater, when he served as Florida House budget chairman from 2009-2010. Rivera held the post under former House speakers Ray Sansom and Larry Cretul, both of whom Rivera helped install. Prior to that, Rivera served as Rules Committee chairman when Rubio served as Florida House speaker from 2007-2008 and helped keep fellow Republicans in line when Rubio clashed with then-Gov. Charlie Crist. Rivera was a solid critic of the Castro regime and, as a state lawmaker, passed legislation to keep state money directly or indirectly from flowing to Cuba.

Other accomplishments Rivera listed: Port of Miami Tunnel, Anti-cyber stalking legislation, Insurance Bill of Rights, 826/836 Interchange, Sales tax holidays, 25th Street Doral Viaduct, protecting Florida taxpayer dollars from being used by universities to flow to terrorist countries like Cuba, working on passage of Colombia Free Trade Agreement, pushing the immigration debate forward with STARS and ARMS bills, fighting to protect American taxpayer dollars through federal procurement from benefiting companies that do business with terrorist countries like Cuba.

During Rivera’s ascent in the Legislature, he avoided serious competition scrutiny.

That changed when Rivera ran for Congress in 2010 against two Republican opponents willing to dredge up a 1994 domestic-violence restraining order filed by a woman named Jenia Dorticos against David M. Rivera. Rivera, whose middle name is Mauricio, had survived an attack ad about the petition during his first state legislative campaign, in 2002.

In 2010, Rivera denied he was the man named in the petition. By then, the court file had been destroyed. He also denied knowing Dorticos, whose mother once worked on one of Rivera’s campaigns. And Dorticos, who now lives in New York, told the Herald she didn’t know the lawmaker. But Rivera’s 2002 campaign used Dorticos in a response flier in which she said “David Rivera has never harmed me! NEVER!”

Rivera’s 2002 campaign adviser, Al Lorenzo, also told The Herald he recalled discussions about using Dorticos in a radio ad to rebut the domestic violence charge. Lorenzo later recanted everything he said to the paper about Dorticos.

But if Rivera didn’t know Dorticos, then how could he have recruited her for ads in 2002? Rivera never answered the question, saying only that he did “not recall” the flier with his campaign address and Dorticos’ photo.

The controversy brought attention to another puzzling incident from Rivera’s 2002 campaign: A car wreck involving a mail truck carrying his opponent’s attack mailers about Dorticos.

A campaign spokesman said Rivera pulled the truck over to retrieve his own mailers, which were on the same truck with his opponent’s attack ads, and the truck hit his car as they pulled out on the Palmetto Expressway. But the truck driver told police at the time that Rivera had hit the truck, and officials with the printing company told The Herald that Rivera took nothing off the truck. No one was charged.

Rivera won the Republican primary in 2010 — but the scrutiny had begun.

During most of his years in the Legislature, Rivera submitted financial reports saying he worked “international development consulting” with the U.S. Agency for International Development, through a Puerto Rican company called Interamerican Government Relations. But USAID, which administers aid to foreign countries, has no record of ever hiring Rivera or his company.

Rivera initially told The Herald he received USAID contracts through competitive bidding. But when told that USAID had no record of his business, he then told the newspaper he worked for USAID through a subcontractor — whom he has declined to name.

Rivera’s campaign also gave the newspaper travel records of trips he made to Mexico and Chile as “examples of Mr. Rivera’s development work.” However, some portions of the records were blacked out — because, as his campaign spokeswoman said, the information “may be considered classified.”

But The Herald discovered that Rivera’s trips to Mexico and Chile were not part of any USAID work. The trips were sponsored by the U.S. State Department as part of an informational program that sends American politicians and academics overseas to give speeches and attend conferences; a state department spokesman said Rivera traveled only as a “private citizen” and not as a USAID contractor.

Within days, Rivera amended his financial disclosure forms in Tallahassee — omitting any reference to USAID.

Rivera’s financial disclosures also raised questions about his relationship with another company called Millennium Marketing — a company founded by Rivera’s 72-year-old mother and godmother. He said he was paid for consulting work for a security firm through Millennium; and in response to questions from The Herald, Rivera described Millennium as a “former client” that he helped with “marketing” and “client development.”

Rivera also paid $30,000 to Millennium to work on his 2006 re-election campaign — including one $15,000 payment made two days after the company was created, records show.

The articles on Rivera’s finances caught the attention of the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, who joined the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in the fall of 2010 to open an investigation of Rivera’s finances. Weeks later, Rivera defeated Joe Garcia and won his seat in Congress.

By December 2010, the investigators had learned that Rivera arranged a $1 million consulting contract with the Flagler Dog Track to run a political campaign to win voter approval for slots machines in 2008 — a deal Rivera had publicly denied in the past.

Under the contract, the money went not to Rivera, but to his mother’s company, Millennium. (At the time the deal was uncovered, only $510,000 of the $1 million had been paid.) When asked about the arrangement, Rivera told The Herald he was “designated by Millennium” to work on the slots campaign.

But Rivera’s mother, Daisy Magarino, refuted him in a sworn statement to investigators. She said Millennium was “almost a non-existent company” she helped create at her son’s request. And Flagler officials refuted him as well. They said it was Rivera’s idea to make the payments to Millennium.

Rivera insisted he was never paid as part of the Millennium deal. But he actually received about $132,000 from Millennium. He and his mother later described the money as loans. However, Rivera had never disclosed any such loans — as required by law — in his legislative financial disclosures.

“He needed the money,” Rivera’s mother told investigators examining the loans. “I don’t know for what.”

The state probe by the FDLE and the State Attorney’s Office reached beyond the dog-track deal and also examined Rivera’s campaign and personal spending. Investigators found that Rivera routinely used campaign money to repay his personal credit card bills. According to a July 2011 memo, FDLE agents believed Rivera had spent as much as $65,000 in campaign money on personal expenses.

Though they believed that Rivera had “essentially live[d] off” campaign contributions for years, Miami-Dade prosecutors ultimately concluded they could not charge Rivera with any crimes. The state’s campaign-finance laws were too vague and weak, and some potential crimes were too old, exceeding the statute of limitations, prosecutors said in a memo closing the case.

Investigators also found that Rivera had raised about $175,000 in undisclosed, unregulated donations — much of it from corporate donors with big business in Tallahassee — in his effort to be a Republican Party “committeeman.” But under state law, Rivera could spend this money virtually any way he pleased.

They also could find no crime in the dog-track deal, because Rivera actually did the work he was asked to do in the contract. However, the state Ethics Commission later accused Rivera of violating state ethics laws for failing to disclose the deal.

Rivera insisted he did nothing wrong, calling the state investigation a politically-motivated “wild-goose chase.” At one point, Rivera said he didn’t have a lawyer amid the state probe. But records show that his attorney had been in contact with investigators for weeks before he made the false statement about not having an attorney.

He said he commonly used his personal credit cards to pay for campaign expenses and then reimbursed his credit-card accounts from the donations — and said he is still owed money for past campaign costs.

When Miami-Dade prosecutors finally dropped their investigation in April, it seemed to remove a major potential hurdle to Rivera’s re-election chances in the fall. But other problems remained: The Internal Revenue Service and the FBI had opened an investigation tied to the dog-track deal, examining whether Rivera should have paid taxes on the Millennium money. That investigation is still ongoing.

Rivera has denied being the target of federal scrutiny as well, but emails from state prosecutors show they told Rivera’s lawyer about federal interest in the case.

Rivera’s ability to seemingly come out unscathed earned him the nickname “David ‘Nine Lives’ Rivera” on the Political Cortadito blog.

But then, this summer, Rivera got snagged in another controversy involving a political newcomer named Justin Lamar Sternad, a Cutler Bay Democrat who decided to run in the crowded primary to challenge Rivera in the newly drawn Congressional District 26, which extends from Kendall to Key West.

Sternad began spending tens of thousands of dollars for campaign mailers, one of which echoed an attack line against the congressman’s rival, Garcia. But Sternad never disclosed the expenditures or the source of the funds. It’s a federal crime to conspire to intentionally hide the sources and expenditures of campaign money.

The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald learned that Sternad used two vendors Rivera had used in the past, Rapid Mail & Computer Services and Campaign Data, to help with his mailers. Both company officials told The Herald and then the FBI that Rivera was involved in ordering the mailers and targeting the recipients, and one said that Rivera helped steer the cash to his firm.

Rivera denied wrongdoing or knowledge of the case. Sternad acknowledged he hired a Rivera friend, Ana Alliegro, to be his campaign manager. Sternad has hired a criminal defense attorney. Alliegro failed to show up for an interview with prosecutors and the FBI. She’s now in contact with an attorney, who won’t discuss her whereabouts to the Herald.

The Herald’s reports about Sternad, the mystery money and Rivera’s potential involvement helped doom Rivera’s campaign.

Even Rubio kept his distance, despite a friendship that stretches back two decades. Rivera, who met Rubio during Rep. Lincoln Diaz Balart’s 1992 congressional race, brought Rubio into Bob Dole’s presidential campaign four years later and then helped him win a seat as a West Miami City commissioner and then state legislator, in 2000. With Rivera always at his side, Rubio won the House speakership and then Senate.

In the last election, Rubio cut a robo-call ad for Rivera and his wife, Jeannette Rubio, showed up a precinct on Election Day to support Rivera.

Rubio avoided asking Rivera about the case.

“I only know what I’ve read in the press,” Rubio said in August. “I just hope none of it is true. I continue to give him the benefit of the doubt on all these things. I just hope none of it is true.”

Courtesy of The Miami Herald
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