Ex-Florida senator charged in fake candidate scheme

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — A former Florida state Republican senator was charged Thursday with three criminal counts involving a sham candidate intended to siphon votes away from a Democratic incumbent.

An arrest warrant says Frank Artiles, the former senator from the Miami area, gave more than $44,000 to the fake candidate in the 2020 election. That candidate, Alex Rodriguez, has the same last name as the then-Democratic incumbent, Jose Javier Rodriguez.

He ran as an independent in a three-way race state Senate race, which was won by Republican Ileana Garcia by just 32 votes. She is not implicated in the scheme, State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said at a news conference.

But Rundle did say the investigation is not over.

“It violates everything that should be honest and straightforward about our elections,” she said. “Where it goes from here, we don’t know. We have not completed this investigation.”

Alex Rodriguez was also charged Thursday with election law violations. His lawyer, William Barzee, said Rodriguez was led into the scam by Artiles and is cooperating with investigators.

“Alex Rodriguez deeply regrets allowing himself to be used in this way and hopes that by coming forth with the truth he can help to right these wrongs,” Barzee said in an email.

Artiles’s attorney did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment. However, Artiles did turn himself in to authorities Thursday morning, prosecutors said.

A Miami Police Department investigator’s affidavit details multiple discussions about money between Artiles and Rodriguez, starting with a discussion about why Rodriguez should file to run in the state Senate race.

“Rodriguez would run as an independent with the same last name as the incumbent candidate (Jose Javier Rodriguez) in an attempt to confuse voters and siphon votes from the incumbent,” the affidavit says.

But Rodriguez had money troubles, so he came up with various requests to obtain cash from Artiles, according to the affidavit. At one point, Rodriguez said he could get a used Range Rover for Artiles for $10,900, and Artiles agreed.

“It should be noted that the Range Rover did not actually exist. It was a fiction created by Rodriguez to get more of the money that he felt he was owed,” the affidavit says.

Artiles is no stranger to controversy.

In 2017, he resigned from the state Senate after using racial slurs in a conversation with two Black legislators in a Tallahassee bar. Then it was revealed Artiles used money from his political committee to hire a former Playboy model and Hooters girl as a consultant.

Before that, Artiles, a Cuban-American, served three terms in the state House from a Miami-Dade district and then was elected to the Senate before his resignation. He also served in the Marine Corps.