Fla. ex-congressional candidate pleads guilty
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) -- A one-time Democratic U.S. House candidate who was a political unknown before last year's election pleaded guilty Friday to federal campaign violations including accepting illegal contributions and filing false finance reports in a case linked to former Republican Rep. David Rivera.
Justin Lamar Sternad, 35, pleaded guilty to conspiracy, false statements and illegal contributions charges that each carry a possible maximum sentence of five years in prison and $250,000 in fines. U.S. District Judge Robin Rosenbaum set sentencing for May 31.
Under Sternad's plea agreement, he could get a much lighter sentence if he cooperates with investigators. He will remain free on $100,000 bail.
Sternad admitted accepting but failing to disclose thousands of dollars in contributions for the 2012 Democratic primary race in the 26th congressional district, which runs from the Miami suburbs to Key West. It was the district represented by Rivera until the November general election, when he was beaten by Democrat Joe Garcia.
According to court documents, an unnamed co-conspirator hand-delivered thousands of dollars in cash either to Sternad, his bank accounts or to vendors who handled the campaign's flyers that were mailed to voters. Some of those mailers sharply attacked Garcia, who was Sternad's opponent in the Democratic race. Sternad also dropped the "Justin" from his campaign, which was renamed "Lamar Sternad for Congress."
Sternad was charged after The Miami Herald published articles saying that the money came from Rivera in an attempt to weaken Garcia and that the go-between was Ana Sol Alliegro, a Republican political operative with ties to Rivera.
Sternad's lawyer, Rick Yabor, read a statement from his client in which Sternad took responsibility and apologized but suggested he did not act alone. "I was taken advantage of and used by others," Sternad said in the statement.
Yabor refused to comment on Rivera's possible involvement but said Sternad will tell investigators everything.
"He is cooperating with the government. We're hoping that he walks out (a free man) on sentencing day," Yabor said.
Neither Alliegro nor Rivera are named in the Sternad court documents. Rivera, who in the past denied any connection to Sternad, did not immediately return a call to his cellphone seeking comment. Alliegro's attorney did not respond to an email or phone call seeking comment.
Rivera, also a former state legislator, has separately been under investigation for possible federal tax violations stemming from a $1 million contract he had with a Florida gambling company. He has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.
After initially failing to disclose the contributions, Sternad in August filed a new report with Federal Election Commission claiming that he had loaned his own campaign more than $63,800. In fact, prosecutors said, he loaned the campaign only about $300.
It does not appear Sternad had nearly enough personal resources to make such large loans.
On Sternad's financial disclosure statement filed as a candidate, he reported income of $14,490 through July 2012 from his job as night auditor at a Miami Beach hotel. The year before, the father of five reported earning $29,281 from two hotel jobs. He reported investment in a mutual fund but did not show taking any money out of it.