One ad attacks Alex Penelas, the other defends him. Both trace back to same DC staffer

Douglas Hanks

On Friday, some Miami-Dade voters received text messages linking to a political committee’s website accusing county mayor candidate Alex Penelas of being part of a “carousel of corruption” when he held the job in the 1990s and 2000s.

Days later, a different committee was circulating a television ad urging voters to ignore the “lies” about Penelas, a former mayor who “cracked down on corruption.”

The crossfire messages had one common thread: They were funded by political committees led by Carlos Condarco, a lawyer active in local Democratic politics and press secretary to Miami Democratic Congresswoman Donna Shalala of the 27th District.

Condarco’s committees, the pro-Penelas A Better Miami Dade and anti-Penelas Defender La Justicia, capture the mystery that often looms over political advertising because neither group has disclosed the donors behind them. Condarco issued a statement Monday saying he regretted his role in the advertising effort.

“My involvement in any political activities were outside the scope of my employment and done without the prior knowledge or consent of my immediate supervisors or the congresswoman,” he said in a statement. ‘I have taken steps to remove myself from all campaign work not associated with the congresswoman, and I sincerely regret any involvement in these endeavors.”

A sceenshot from a television ad defending Miami-Dade mayoral candidate Alex Penelas. It was produced by a committee that also produced a website attacking the Penelas record when he was last county mayor in the 1990s and 2000s.

Condarco is listed in state filing papers as chairman of Defender La Justicia. He’s listed as chairman of A Better Miami Dade in filings submitted to the Federal Communications Commission in connecting with buying air time for political ads.

The Better Miami Dade ads praising Penelas and attacking rival candidates Esteban “Steve” Bovo and Xavier Suarez caused a stir this week. The committee shares a name, but not a hyphen, with Bovo’s main political committee, A Better Miami-Dade.

That caused some double takes when A Better Miami Dade aired a Spanish-language television ad condemning Bovo’s ties to David Rivera, a former congressman being sued over an alleged $50 million consulting contract with a Venezuelan oil company.

A radio ad by the group went after Suarez and his brief comeback stint as Miami mayor in 1997 until a judge overturned the election after disqualifying thousands of fraudulent ballots. Suarez wasn’t accused of wrongdoing.

“What A Better Miami Dade is doing is prohibited by law and intentionally confusing to your listeners,” Suarez lawyer David Winker wrote in a letter Monday to the La Poderosa 670 AM. He claimed the committee has not properly registered to participate in political campaigns, and can only be traced to a Miami UPS box. “The name is intentionally confusingly similar to another entity which is a properly registered PAC.”

A website, alexpenelastruth.com, produced by the Defender La Justicia political committee criticizes the former county mayor as he runs for the office again in 2020. The committee’s chairman is also listed as chairman of the A Better Miami Dade committee, which is running pro-Penelas ads.

There’s nothing illegal about Condarco, a Miami lawyer before joining Shalala’s office, working for political committees on his off-hours. Congressional staff are free to engage in campaign activities outside work, and members of Congress often pick sides in local politics. Shalala’s fellow freshman Democrat from the neighboring 26th Congressional District, Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, last summer endorsed Daniella Levine Cava, the other well-funded Democrat running for county mayor in 2020.

Shalala has stayed neutral in the county mayoral race. That makes Condarco’s role a potentially awkward development.

There are two well-funded Democrats in the seven-person race: Penelas and Levine Cava, who serves on the county commission with Bovo, a Republican, and Suarez, a registered independent. Shalala declined to comment on Condarco’s role in the committees.

Suarez issued a statement Tuesday calling on his rivals to run positive campaigns. “The recent attack ad which sought to defame my name and also accused another mayoral candidate of electoral misdeeds is another example of a sad sequence of surreptitious attacks,” he said.

There’s no known record of A Better Miami Dade filing as a political committee, the way Bovo’s A Better Miami-Dade did. Condarco did not respond to questions about the committee’s formation. Defender La Justicia did register as a state political committee in November.

It has yet to report a dollar in donations or expenditures, and Florida’s Division of Elections sent Condarco four letters since January warning of fines if he didn’t submit the required disclosures. The last letter was dated June 22.

The two Penelas pieces from the Condarco committees do a fairly decent job responding to each other.

The La Justicia website, alexpenelastruth.com, highlights political influence in county airport contracts during the Penelas years as mayor. “We can’t go back,” reads the site’s headline.

The Spanish-language television spot by A Better Miami Dade blames Bovo for the attacks on Penelas.

“Don’t believe the lies about Alex Penelas coming from Esteban Bovo’s buddies,” the announcer states. “We know Penelas. As Mayor, he helped create thousands of jobs, lowered crime and cracked down on corruption.”

This story was updated to correct the first name of Carlos Condarco.