Garcia seeking congressional comeback, but old scandal could hurt

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Democrat Joe Garcia. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
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Marc Caputo

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Democrat Joe Garcia, who lost his 2014 congressional re-election bid amid two scandals tied to a former aide, has decided to run for his old seat against a one-time friend, Annette Taddeo.

Garcia’s announcement for Florida’s 26th Congressional District prompted swift criticism from Republicans and some Democrats who said the fraud case that played into his election loss two years ago will haunt his effort.

“District 26 has rid itself of its shady past. Why anyone would vote to bring back the embarrassing past is beyond me,” said Enrique “Rick” Yabor, a political commentator and Republican resident of the district who raised a ruckus about Garcia’s potential involvement in the scam that ultimately led to the federal indictment of the then-congressman’s former top adviser and chief of staff.

That staffer, Jeffrey Garcia (no known relation), masterminded a scheme to divert campaign money to a phony tea party candidate so he could siphon votes from a Republican rival. Joe Garcia denied any knowledge or involvement, but the FBI dug up an email indicating he might have been informed of the scheme.

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Joe Garcia’s criminal defense attorney, David Oscar Markus, said his client was innocent. Garcia was never indicted and was never named as an unindicted co-conspirator. Jeffrey Garcia pleaded guilty last year to a misdemeanor federal charge of covertly funding the phony tea party candidate in 2010. 

“The only people who still care about this are angry, bitter politicians who are petrified of actually discussing the issues. Instead they want to parse a single email from over five years ago that Joe didn't even write out of the thousands he received weekly. Enough already,” Markus said via email. “This is still America. When you haven't done anything wrong and no case is even brought, you can hold your head high. Joe wants to serve our country. Instead of attacking him, we should be thankful.”

Garcia’s Democratic rival, Taddeo, wouldn’t say whether the criminal case would become a campaign issue. However, she said, “this district has been through a lot and it’s time to turn the page.”

Said one Democratic donor who supported Garcia: "This is not good for him and it's not good for the party. This is vanity."

Taddeo, who was Charlie Crist’s running mate for governor in 2014, said their ticket won the 26th District — which spans from Key West to the Miami area — at the same time Garcia lost it amid a barrage of negative Republican ads questioning his character. Republican Carlos Curbelo, who now holds the seat, wouldn’t say if he’ll bring up the issue again.

Another reason for Garcia’s loss: His inexperienced campaign team did a poor job managing absentee ballots and turning out voters. Some of them are again working with Garcia in his new campaign.

Since that 2014 election, the district has been slightly redrawn and is more-Democrat performing. Democrats usually turn out in better numbers during presidential election years, giving them hope they’ll have an even-better chance of winning the seat.

“The reality is the only way Curbelo probably keeps that seat is if a Marco Rubio is the Republican nominee [for president],” said one top Washington Democrat aligned with congressional campaigns. “A Ted Cruz or a Donald Trump at the top of the ticket would be game-over for a swing seat like the 26th.”

Jeffrey Garcia, who received probation and was busted in a separate absentee-ballot request fraud scheme while working for Garcia, wouldn’t comment. The phony tea party candidate, Roly Arrojo, was also convicted for his part in the scheme to bleed votes away from Republican David Rivera in 2010.

“If I got a Tea Party Candidate in the race, that will improve your odds,” Jeffrey Garcia emailed Joe Garcia on Feb. 23, 2010. “YOU WILL WIN IF…. Tea Party Candidate (will happen).” 

Two months later, Jeffrey Garcia withdrew a $12,000 check from Joe Garcia’s campaign account and deposited it in Arrojo’s account to pay for the qualifying fee to keep him on the ballot against Rivera. It’s unclear why Joe Garcia didn’t know why such a large check was withdrawn from his campaign at the time. 

Regardless, the scheme ultimately failed. And Rivera won the seat.

In the next election cycle, a girlfriend of Rivera’s says he tried to do the same thing by covertly funding a Democrat to oppose Joe Garcia in a 2012 Democratic primary. The scheme was uncovered by the Miami Herald and the straw candidate as well as Rivera’s girlfriend were indicted and convicted for violating campaign finance laws. Rivera, identified as an unindicted co-conspirator in the case, wasn’t charged and may escape indictment.

One of the defense lawyers in that 2012 case, Yabor, has condemned the decision to bypass indicted Rivera and Garcia. But, he said, he hopes Garcia wins the Democratic primary because it could make it easier for Curbelo to hang on to his seat.

“Garcia is an easy target for Curbelo,” Yabor said. “He won’t even need to consider locating a phantom candidate.”