Orlando Sentinel to oppose ex-lawmaker’s request to shield evidence in ‘ghost’ candidate case – Orlando Sentinel

Orlando Sentinel

Jun 18, 2021 6:02 PM

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Frank Artiles' car as they raid his home in Palmetto Bay on Wednesday, March 17, 2021.

Frank Artiles’ car as they raid his home in Palmetto Bay on Wednesday, March 17, 2021. (Pedro Portal/TNS)

The Orlando Sentinel filed a motion in Miami-Dade Circuit Court on Friday opposing an effort by former state legislator Frank Artiles to shield evidence in a criminal case against him alleging he paid another man to run as an independent candidate in a South Florida state Senate election.

It’s one of three key Senate races last year — including one in Central Florida won by Republican Sen. Jason Brodeur of Sanford — in which so-called “ghost” candidates appeared to run in order to siphon votes from Democrats.

Attorneys for Artiles, a former state senator who was arrested in March on charges he violated campaign finance laws by paying a financially struggling friend to enter a Miami-area Florida Senate race, asked a judge last month to shield Artiles’ cell phone contacts, texts and other evidence gathered by prosecutors from public view.

Those documents would typically be subject to the state’s open records laws.

Handwriting experts say Orlando political strategist Eric Foglesong likely wrote the $1,187 check that paid qualifying fees for Jestine Iannotti, a non-party affiliated candidate whose run for state Senate District 9 has drawn scrutiny as one of several possible “ghost” candidates in key races.

If the documents were publicly disclosed, it would be “an impossibility” for Artiles, who is accused of paying nearly $45,000 to Alex Rodriguez to file as a no-party affiliate (NPA) candidate, to receive a fair trial, his attorneys claimed in the motion.

But attorneys representing the Sentinel argued in their motion that neither fair trial concerns nor personal privacy rights justify withholding the documents from the public, and noted that Artiles’ request to shield the records was vague about what he wanted to conceal.

“Claiming a privacy interest in the whole lot of discovery is simply an untenable position, and the overbreadth of this claimed interest is especially concerning considering that Artiles has now possessed the discovery for almost two months,” wrote the Sentinel’s attorneys, Rachel Fugate, Giselle Girones and Minch Minchin

The newspaper’s lawyers also disputed Artiles’ assertion the release of the records would prevent him from finding impartial jurors.

“First, the contention that public disclosure of these records will irreparably taint the entire prospective jury pool for a trial at some unspecified time in the future within the seventh-largest county in the United States is facially specious,” the Sentinel motion said.

Prosecutors say the goal of the scheme that led to Artiles’ arrest was to confuse voters and siphon away votes from Democrat Jose Javier Rodríguez, who sought re-election to the Florida Senate District 37 seat last year. He lost by 32 votes to Republican Ileana Garcia, while more than 6,000 voters cast ballots for Alex Rodriguez, the independent candidate who did no campaigning.

Investigators searching for the source of more than half-a-million dollars spent last year in support of spoiler candidates that helped Republicans win three key state Senate races have obtained bank records for an organization tied to a big-business lobbying group funded by companies such as Florida Power & Light, Walt Disney World and U.S. Sugar Corp.

Rodriguez’s shadowy candidacy bears similarities to that of another NPA candidate, Jestine Iannotti, who ran for a Central Florida state senate seat.

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After filing to run in Florida Senate District 9 last June, Iannotti did no campaigning and little fundraising, according to state campaign finance records. She also spent several weeks in Sweden before the election, when other campaigns were in full swing, her social media accounts show. She repeatedly declined interviews from the press and sent a statement in September asking for “privacy.”

Iannotti received contributions from just four individuals, state records show, one of whom told the Sentinel in April he’d never heard of the candidate and hadn’t given money to her campaign.

Last November, Brodeur defeated Democrat Patricia Sigman in the District 9 race, which represents all of Seminole County and part of Volusia. Artiles was overheard at Brodeur’s election night party at a Lake Mary bar, bragging about his involvement in the South Florida race, the Miami Herald reported.

No one has been charged in connection with the Central Florida race nor a second South Florida contest where a little-known independent filed to run but did not campaign for the seat.

anmartin@orlandosentinel.com