Jury finds Seminole County Republican chair guilty in Florida ‘ghost’ candidate case

ORLANDO, Fla. — A jury of six people found Seminole County GOP Chairman Ben Paris guilty Thursday of causing his cousin’s name to be falsely listed on independent “ghost” candidate Jestine Iannotti’s campaign contribution forms in 2020.

Paris was sentenced to 12 months of probation and 200 hours of community service for the misdemeanor and ordered to pay roughly $42,000 — the cost of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation into the apparent vote-siphoning scheme.

Iannotti said Paris contacted her in May 2020 asking her to run in a competitive state Senate race. Though Iannotti had no political experience when she entered the race and did not campaign, her candidacy was central to the scheme, as she was promoted as a progressive in an advertising blitz that was apparently intended to draw votes from her Democratic opponent.

Paris was stoic as the verdict was read and as the judge detailed his sentence. He and his attorney Matthews Bark declined to comment as they left the courtroom Thursday.

Bark after the verdict said Paris does not plan to remain in politics and would have to resign as the Seminole GOP’s chair.

Iannotti and political consultant Eric Foglesong also face charges in the scheme and have pleaded not guilty. Foglesong has been charged with three felonies and two misdemeanors, while Iannotti has been charged with a felony and five misdemeanors. If Foglesong and Iannotti are convicted, they’ll share the cost of repaying FDLE for the investigation, Judge Wayne Culver said.

Central to the state’s case was testimony on Wednesday from Paris’ cousin, Steven Smith. Though Smith told jurors he never gave money to Iannotti’s campaign, her reports showed a $200 contribution from him.

Smith said on June 19, 2020, the same day the financial report was due, Paris called to ask him if he could contribute to Iannotti’s campaign in his name. The reason for the request, Smith said Paris told him, was Paris had reached his state-imposed contribution limit.

But Iannotti never reported any contributions from Paris. At the time, Paris, the former mayor of Longwood, was running for Seminole County Commission and publicly endorsing Republican state Sen. Jason Brodeur, Iannotti’s opponent. Paris was also working for Brodeur at the Seminole County Chamber of Commerce, where Brodeur is the president and CEO.

The state and the defense gave their closing arguments Thursday morning and the jury reached its verdict after roughly three hours of deliberation.

Prosecutors focused on Paris’ call to Smith the day Iannotti’s financial report was due. Immediately after calling Smith, Paris texted political consultant Eric Foglesong, who Iannotti identified as her “unofficial adviser” and said filed her financial reports.

They also zeroed in on a call placed by Paris to Smith on April 8, 2021, after a reporter had knocked on Smith’s door to ask about the contribution. Smith testified that Paris told him that if anyone asked about the contribution, he should tell them he did give money to Iannotti’s campaign because he “thought she would be good for the county.”

Jurors were shielded from hearing most of the context surrounding the crime, as Culver had granted a request from the defense to bar any mention of “ghost” candidates to jurors or characterize Iannotti as a spoiler and said prosecutors could not mention Paris’ connections to Brodeur.

But in closing arguments, Assistant State Attorney Matthew Futch stressed that the alleged crime was not just about the $200 that Iannotti’s reports falsely claimed came from Smith.

“Campaign finance transparency is one of the fundamental tenets of making sure those elections are free and fair so that we as the electorate and the citizens know where the money is coming from, where the candidates’ support is coming from,” Futch said, adding, “That’s why this matters.”

Bark pointed out that the evidence did not show that Paris ever actually contributed to Iannotti, whose only contributions came from cash contained in an envelope she picked up from Foglesong’s office on June 10, 2020.

Furthermore, Bark said, it is not known what Paris texted to Foglesong after speaking with Smith on June 19. The jury should not assume Paris was guilty because he was in contact with Iannotti and Foglesong around the same time Iannotti’s financial reports were submitted, he said.

“Maybe Mr. Foglesong is the culprit,” Bark said “Seems like he is.”

Several members of Paris’ family, as well as Rebekah Dorworth, the wife of former state Rep. Chris Dorworth, attended the trial Wednesday and Thursday and were present when the verdict was read.

Iannotti was one of three independent candidates who ran for competitive state Senate seats in 2020 and, though they did not campaign, were promoted as progressives in an advertisement blitz paid for by a group linked to consultants working closely with Florida Power & Light.

The utility denies it had any involvement in the spoiler candidate scheme, which was apparently intended to siphon votes from Democrats — including one of the utility’s most prominent critics in the state Legislature — and help Republicans win those races.

In South Florida’s state Senate District 37, former lawmaker Frank Artiles is accused of paying his friend Alex Rodriguez nearly $45,000 to run as an independent spoiler candidate in 2020. Rodriguez, who received more than 6,000 votes, pleaded guilty and is expected to testify against Artiles at his trial. Democrat José Javier Rodríguez lost that race by 32 votes to Republican Ileana Garcia.