POLITICS

Carney: In Florida race, Republicans shun GOP incumbent

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Politics,Timothy P. Carney,Campaign 2012,Politics Digest

Freshman congressman David Rivera is the most endangered House Republican this election, and his party isn't bothered by the prospect of losing him.

"It would be really nice to win that seat in 2014," one GOP operative told me about Rivera's Miami-based 25th District, "and get someone who would not embarrass us."

Rivera is under federal investigation over campaign finance violations stemming from a purported plot to interfere in this year's Democratic primary, according to the Miami Herald.

Democrat Joe Garcia lost to Rivera by 9 points in 2010 and immediately geared up for rematch. Justin Sternad, a night-shift hotel worker and political novice, challenged Garcia in this year's Democratic primary, hitting him with a sophisticated mail campaign using attacks geared to different demographics.

Now Sternad has told federal investigators that Rivera was behind his campaign, the Herald is reporting. The vendors who sent out Sternad's mailings say the money came mostly in cash. Sternad's campaign filings say he funded his race with a $53,000 personal loan from himself, although his salary is reportedly $30,000.

Sternad's campaign manager Ana Alliegro was a friend of Rivera. She was supposed to testify to the grand jury last month, according to the Herald, but now she has gone missing.

Democratic nominee Garcia is pretty pleased with the developments, but he plays coy. "I figure when you say, 'My opponent has an empanelled grand jury investigating him,' " Garcia told me over piping-hot pork rinds in Miami last week, "I think enough is said."

Despite copious evidence reported by the Herald, Rivera still denies there is any investigation, and he shows exasperation that it's the first thing every reporter asks him.

At a town hall debate in Key West last week, the panel of local journalists directed their first two questions at Rivera. Both asked about the reported investigation and whether Rivera was behind Sternad's campaign. Rivera gave oblique answers:

"No federal agency or federal authority has ever stated or confirmed that I am under investigation for anything," Rivera said, "and so I categorically rebuff all of the false allegations that have been reported."

In response to the follow-up, the congressman gave the same quasi-denial: "I categorically reject every single false allegation that has been made in the media."

It's hard to put much trust in Rivera's denials because he always seems to dodging, spinning and misleading. (In that vein, he and his campaign repeatedly deflected my attempts to interview him for this column.)

In July, when the Herald reported that federal investigators were looking into shady payments between a gambling company and a Rivera-connected company, Rivera's campaign denied that the congressman even had a defense attorney. But emails among local law enforcement, made public this month, indicate he is the target of multiple investigations and has had a defense lawyer since at least June.

Even before the Sternad investigation and before the dog-track investigation, Rivera was a magnet for controversy. He claimed to have worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development, but the agency denied it. In a 2002 state legislative race, Rivera was involved in a car crash with the truck carrying his opponent's last-minute mailers. Because of the accident, the truck missed the post office closing, and Rivera won by 238 votes.

Since Rivera arrived in Washington, portions of the GOP establishment have kept their distance from him. One GOP lobbyist told me he advised a client to stay away from Rivera -- that fostering a relationship with Rivera could lead to trouble.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor pointedly snubbed Rivera in a visit to Miami early in Rivera's term. When Cantor held a fundraiser in Miami this past summer, every Florida Republican congressman was listed as host on the invitation -- except for Rivera.

But in late spring, local prosecutors dropped their own dog-track investigation, and reports had not yet emerged of the two federal investigations. In that period, some Republicans rallied behind Rivera. Pete Sessions, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, put his name atop an invitation to a June 5 D.C. fundraiser for Rivera.

But since the Herald's reports, Rivera has been cut off.

Mitt Romney held a rally in Rivera's district last month, and Rivera was conspicuously absent.

The NRCC has a webpage dedicated to its incumbents running tough elections. This list of "GOP Patriots" has 33 names. Rivera isn't on the list -- and not because he's safe.

Rivera friend and potential witness Alliegro isn't the only one who's gone missing from Miami -- national Republicans have skipped town, too.

Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at tcarney@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.

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