Former congressman Rivera fined $456,000 for propping up a ringer candidate

A federal judge ruled Tuesday that former Miami Republican Rep. David Rivera violated campaign finance law when he funneled $75,927 in campaign money to a novice political candidate running against Rivera’s likely Democratic challenger in Florida’s 26th Congressional District — and ordered Rivera to pay a $456,000 fine for devising a scheme he knew was illegal.

In a scathing order, Judge Marcia Cooke said Rivera’s violations were knowing, willful and injured the public. She said Rivera has the money to pay the fine and also issued a permanent injunction to further prevent Rivera from breaking campaign finance law in the future since he continued to run for office after losing the 2012 race for Florida’s 26th Congressional District to Democrat Joe Garcia.

“Rivera’s illegal conduct was egregious,” Cooke wrote in her ruling. “Perhaps by virtue of the Court barring Rivera from engaging in similar unlawful conduct in the future, ‘that will do the trick’ in convincing Rivera — a former U.S. Congressman — to stop violating the law.”

The judgment was the latest development in a four-year legal battle between Rivera and the Federal Election Commission, which began in 2017 after the FEC sued him over unreported money Rivera and Ana Alliegro, a GOP political consultant, used in 2012 to prop up straw candidate Justin Lamar Sternad against Garcia in the Democratic primary.

“The Commission sought a civil penalty of $456,000, which the district court granted,” the FEC wrote in a press release responding to the case.

In a text message, Rivera said the order is “all based on lies, innuendo, hearsay and fake news.” Rivera’s attorney, Roy Kahn, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Rivera’s first penalty in this case

While Sternad and Alliegro ultimately were convicted of criminal charges for their role in the scheme, Rivera managed to avoid criminal punishment. Tuesday’s fine is the first penalty faced by Rivera for his involvement in the scheme revealed in 2012 by the Miami Herald.

In 2018, Rivera claimed vindication after Cooke tossed out the FEC’s lawsuit based on a 2018 court ruling in Utah that found that the law cited by the federal agency in bringing its case against Rivera was fatally flawed. But the FEC refiled the lawsuit in 2019.

Cooke was appointed by former President George W. Bush in 2003. She previously served as chief inspector general for former Gov. Jeb Bush and later as assistant county attorney for Miami-Dade County.

Craig Holman, a government ethics expert and lobbyist with the left-leaning think tank Public Citizen, said it’s uncommon for the FEC to pursue fines in recent years unless it’s an open-and-shut case.

“Commissioners on both sides of the aisle must have been aghast by the evidentiary record in this case,” said Holman, who once filed a complaint against the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation for unlawful political activity that led to a $3.8 million FEC fine. The cash collected from FEC fines goes to the U.S. government’s general fund.

“Since 2006, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has taken great effort to appoint Republican members to the commission who are very reluctant to enforce the campaign finance laws,” Holman said. “It is even rarer that the agency would impose such a substantial fine.”

The court ruling is the latest setback for the scandal-ridden former congressman who once co-owned a house with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio when they both served in the Florida Legislature.

Rivera’s Venezuela scandal

Rivera is also under FBI investigation for his $50 million contract with PDVSA, an oil company owned by Venezuela’s socialist government. His business dealings in Venezuela came to light when PDVSA’s U.S. subsidiary sued him for breach of contract in 2020.

Rivera, a harsh critic of socialist regimes in Cuba and Venezuela while holding elected office, was paid $15 million as a down payment on a three-month, $50 million contract through his consulting company, Interamerican Consulting Inc., according to the lawsuit filed in New York federal court. The lawsuit said Rivera was hired to improve PDVSA’s reputation in America amid an economic collapse in Venezuela.

The FBI is interested in Rivera’s activities because he didn’t register as a foreign agent before working for the Venezuelan government.

And the consulting contract was brought up again in Tuesday’s court ruling. Cooke noted that Rivera claimed a net worth of $1.5 million on a 2015 financial disclosure form and was paid a total of $15 million of his $50 million contract before it was canceled.

Cooke wrote that the court had the ability to impose a fine up to $759,000, or 1,000% of the $75,927 worth of illegal campaign contributions that Rivera made to Sternad.

“Rivera’s illegal conduct was egregious,” Cooke wrote. “Moreover, there is a danger that Rivera’s conduct will continue. First and foremost, as his filings in this case demonstrate, Rivera continues to refuse to take responsibility for his illegal conduct. And, second, Rivera continues to run for office.”

Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau Chief Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.