The state accuses a “ghost” candidate and his alleged collaborators further taint the 2020 election of State Sen. Jason Brodeur, who represents Seminole County and a small portion of Volusia County.
The Senate seat was open and hotly contested. Brodeur, CEO of the Seminole County Chamber of Commerce, was the Republican nominee.
He knew that four years earlier, a congressional seat that encompassed much of Seminole County had been turned from red to blue by Stephanie Murphy. Brodeur and the Republicans certainly didn’t want that to happen again.
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Meanwhile, the Democrats presented a formidable enemy. Among five candidates in the primary, Patricia Sigman, a well-respected labor lawyer, would emerge victorious. And while Brodeur had raised over a million dollars during his campaign, Sigman was no slouch, raising nearly half a million.
The rhetoric was hot and the campaign ads were predictably negative.
What came as a surprise in October, however, was a flood of PAC money that gave a big boost to an underground candidate with no party affiliation. Here’s a look at the three players who were charged last week and the questions that remain unanswered in an investigative summary compiled by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Public Corruption Unit.
The “ghost” candidate
Jestine Iannotti, 36, of Winter Springs, is a former paraprofessional and substitute teacher at Seminole County Schools who was awash in student loan debt, listing her net worth as negative $154,000 on a June financial disclosure form 2020.
With the help of Eric Foglesong, a Winter Park political consultant with a criminal record, Iannotti filed paperwork to become a state senator on June 4, 2020. In an interview with investigators, she said she had spoke with friends about the race and said Ben Paris, the former mayor of Longwood and current chairman of the Seminole County Republican Executive Committee, was among those who cheered her on.
“Iannotti indicated that she wanted to run as a political candidate to ‘try something new’ and to see if she was ‘good at it,'” the investigative summary reads.
In order to become an NPA candidate before the deadline that month, Iannotti had to pay $1,187.88 as a qualifying fee.
Iannotti first told investigators that the $1,200 she raised in campaign donations was money she deposited into her official campaign account, according to the summary. After stopping the interview to consult with his lawyer, Iannotti changed his previous statement. “Okay. Uh, where I was misinterpreted earlier, uh, so the money that was deposited was from me, myself. Uh, I opened the account with $100 and everything, then later I deposited $ 500. The rest was checks.
Foglesong provided the checks as someone who helped her find donors, she told authorities.
Investigators reviewed Iannotti’s bank statements and determined that his original account, that the money was used for the deposit, was correct and “contradicted his second statement that the deposits were made by check”.
Iannotti is charged with five counts related to falsifying campaign records, investigators said, as well as illegal cash contributions.
She is expected to be arraigned on August 2.
Michael Barber, a Winter Park attorney representing Iannotti, said in an email that she was not scheduling interviews and was focusing on her criminal defense.
The campaign adviser
James “Eric” Foglesong, 45, of Winter Park, helped Iannotti establish his campaign, providing him with enough money to cover registration fees and help with paperwork, prosecutors say.
He told investigators he did not remember if Iannotti contacted him or if he contacted her. And Iannotti told investigators she couldn’t remember how they met.
But text messages subpoenaed by the FDLE say they started talking about Iannotti’s candidacy on May 29, 2020.
Foglesong’s stock as a campaign strategist was down.
He was on probation. He had pleaded guilty to grand larceny following his arrest in April 2019 by the FDLE, which alleged he had taken $20,000 from a political committee he created, Citizens for Safety and Justice. Between 2018 and 2019, the PAC raised $83,000 from donors seeking to help re-elect Orange County Sheriff John Mina.
Thus, a year later, Foglesong reappeared as a support for the NPA candidates.
“I think I gave money to a few independent candidates in races last year because I’m sick of both parties,” Foglesong told the News-Journal in 2021.
He gave Iannotti $300 to help with his application fees, and also rounded up two other donations.
One was $100 from Orlando’s Todd Karvoski.
Karvoski told investigators he sometimes had drinks with Foglesong but did not give Iannotti money or speak with Foglesong about a campaign donation.
“I never wrote a check,” he told investigators. “I’m not even a registered voter. I have no interest in campaigns, or anything else.
Another $500 campaign contribution from Iannotti was listed as a loan from herself.
In a text message, Iannotti asked Foglesong, “So unofficially who gave the extra money?”
Foglesong replied, “Me.”
A call seeking comment from Foglesong was not answered on Friday.
He faces three third-degree felony charges and two misdemeanor charges related to campaign finance violations and faces an arraignment Aug. 2.
The well-connected party leader
Benjamin Paris, 38, of Longwood, is chairman of the Seminole County Republican Executive Committee.
Although he was not president in 2020, Paris was a former mayor of Longwood who served as vice president/operations at the Seminole County Chamber of Commerce, where Brodeur serves as CEO.
Paris resigned from the chamber on Tuesday.
He was also a candidate himself in 2020, seeking the Republican nomination for District 3 of the Seminole County Council. He lost by a 2-to-1 margin to Lee Constantine.
Iannotti told investigators that Paris was someone she consulted when considering running. They had friends in common.
Paris is accused of donating $200 to Iannotti’s campaign but asking his cousin, Steven Smith of Fern Park, to put his name on the donation in a June 19 phone call 2020. Prosecutors allege Smith agreed, but did not receive money for it.
In a phone call on April 8, 2021, Paris told Smith, “If someone came to ask me about it, say that, yes, I had made the donation and I knew the candidate and I thought that it would be good for the county,” the FDLE report said.
Paris, who declined to give a statement to investigators, pleaded not guilty to a misdemeanor charge of making a campaign contribution on another person’s behalf. His hearing is scheduled for June 17.
Paris did not respond to a call seeking comment on Thursday.
During the election season, Iannotti kept a low profile, campaigning little or nothing. She avoided media interviews, a common tactic for reaching voters with a message. The Miami Herald and Dagens Nyheter, a Swedish daily, discovered immigration documents showing that she had applied for residency in Sweden before applying in June.
Yet in October, a political committee independent of her campaign spent $180,000 on flyers mailed to voters, proclaiming her the candidate “WHO WILL ALWAYS BE THERE FOR US!”
The flyers featured the image of a black woman. Iannotti is white.
The PAC that spent the money was simply called The Truth. Its president was a 26-year-old woman who “was afraid of money” because she had become pregnant. She was recruited by a friend and offered by Tallahassee Republican political operative Alex Alvarado $4,000 to serve as president with virtually no accountability, according to testimony she gave to state attorney’s office investigators. from Miami Dade.
The Truth and a second PAC, Our Florida, pumped a total of $550,000 into fliers supporting Iannotti and two other “ghost candidates” in the South Florida races, Alex Rodriguez in Senate District 37 and Celso Alfonso in Senate District 39.
The flier messages appeared to target left-leaning independent voters in competitive races, all ultimately won by Republicans.
Rodriguez admitted he was paid more than $44,000 by a former state senator, Frank Artiles, to run. He pleaded guilty last year in Miami-Dade County to two counts of voter fraud and agreed to testify against Artiles, a campaign consultant with ties to influential Gainesville firm Data Targeting Inc., and Alvarado, the Tallahassee campaign strategist who pulled the strings on the PACs that funded the fliers supporting the “ghost” candidates. .
Artiles, who pleaded not guilty, has his next court hearing scheduled for September 1.
The investigation of the FDLE on Iannotti, Foglesong and Paris does not dwell on the money of the PAC.
It also leaves unanswered questions about whether Iannotti received payment to run, like Rodriguez did.
And she’s not probing the beneficiary of Iannotti’s campaign, State Sen. Jason Brodeur. Did he know that Paris—his employee at the Seminole County Chamber of Commerce who had backed him—had made a donation to his opponent, Iannotti?
If the investigators asked about it, they did not include it in their report.
And Brodeur did not respond to a request for comment.
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