Ex-Rep. David Rivera’s friend pleads not guilty to federal charges

Article Courtesy of The Miami Herald

By Marc Caputo and Patricia Mazzei

Published March 14, 2014

Ana Alliegro, arrested in Nicaragua last week, appeared for the first time Monday in Miami federal court, where prosecutors made sure she remained incarcerated amid an ongoing campaign-finance scandal tied to former congressman David Rivera.

Alliegro pleaded not guilty to four counts of making a false statement, conspiring and making illegal campaign contributions. She faces a maximum five years in prison on each charge.

U.S. Attorney Thomas J. Mulvihill asked the court to deny bond for Alliegro, saying she is a “flight risk.” Alliegro has twice left Miami for Nicaragua when Mulvihill and the FBI wanted her to stay.

According to an indictment, Alliegro and unnamed “co-conspirators” helped steer almost $82,000 in unreported contributions to the campaign of another co-conspirator, Justin Lamar Sternad, in a 2012 Democratic congressional primary.

At times, Sternad’s campaign resembled a proxy for Rivera — at the time a Republican congressman — in the way it attacked his Democratic rival.

Sternad pleaded guilty last year. He recently named Rivera and Alliegro as the clandestine and driving forces behind his Democratic campaign. Rivera has denied wrongdoing.

Outspoken and aggressive, Alliegro, a self-described Republican “bad girl,” said nothing Monday in federal court, where she appeared tired.

Days before her arrest, Alliegro said in an interview with Diario Las Américas, a Miami Spanish-language newspaper, that she was innocent. She pointed out the FBI had interviewed her a couple of times late last year.

“If they had had charges against me, they would have arrested me,” she said.

Last Tuesday, authorities did just that. Alliegro was picked up by Nicaraguan police at the request of the U.S. embassy in Managua. She was held on an immigration charge at a facility in Managua before being sent to the United States on Friday — her 44th birthday. As cameras recorded the scene in Nicaragua, Alliegro covered her face with her cuffed hands.

“She was held in a Nicaraguan facility for three days under some pretty terrible conditions — deplorable conditions,” Alliegro’s lawyer, Mauricio Padilla, said Monday. “She’s not in good shape. I feel badly for her. I feel badly for her family.”

Adding to Alliegro’s woes: She was in solitary confinement while in a federal jail because she hadn’t had a medical examination as of Monday afternoon.

By waiting until Friday to pick Alliegro up, federal prosecutors helped ensure she’d remain in custody without a first appearance until Monday.

“If she didn’t get a taste of what her life is going to be over the weekend, she’s now in a federal detention center 24/7, thinking how she got there,” said David Weinstein, a formal federal prosecutor who has closely followed the case. “She now has a decision to make: Suck it up and do the time or give evidence. She’s not the target. David Rivera is. That’s who they want.”

Alliegro first went to Nicaragua in September 2012, after the FBI gave her a subpoena in the case and local police arrested her on an old traffic charge, her mother said.

After moving to the colonial town of Granada, Alliegro opened up a beauty salon. She remained in contract with, and was frequently visited by, Rivera. He sometimes slipped into the country from neighboring Costa Rica, the Miami Herald learned.

Alliegro returned briefly to Miami and met with prosecutors last November. She gave up her passport, an indication she wasn’t supposed to leave. Yet somehow Alliegro left anyway and returned to Granada. She posted on her Facebook account how much she loved being away from Miami

“I guess it took a bit for me to realize my world was full of horrible people,” she wrote on her Facebook page. “With the exception of a hand full of friends I now call family. And thanks a million to all my new friends and the ones that stuck by me.”

According to Sternad and the indictment against her, Alliegro was no friend to the political nobody who just wanted to run for Congress.

In the Democratic race against Joe Garcia, Sternad had no political experience, no political name and little money. That’s where Alliegro came in, according to Sternad and the indictment. As early as May 2012, Alliegro allegedly began steering money to him and running his campaign. In June, $11,500 in cash was deposited into his campaign account. He then paid his $10,440 qualifying fee with the money.

Sternad never reported the source of funds, a violation of federal law. The indictment says Alliegro told him to lie on campaign-finance reports.

The bulk of the illegal money — some of it cash — was used to underwrite the cost of mailers, one of which savaged Garcia over his divorce. It’s unclear where Alliegro, who isn’t personally wealthy, got the $82,000 to spend on Sternad’s long-shot campaign.

The indictment says that, as early as July 2012, Alliegro and an unnamed co-conspirator met with a graphic designer to develop Sternad’s mailers.

A month later, as the Miami Herald/El Nuevo Herald noticed Sternad’s suspicious campaign filings — because they lacked details about the source of funds — two campaign vendors said in interviews that Rivera and Alliegro were behind Sternad’s campaign.

The FBI began investigating the case after the Herald articles.

Garcia went on to beat Sternad and others in the Democratic primary. He then defeated Rivera in the general election for the congressional seat that extends from Key West to Southwest Eighth Street in western Miami-Dade county.

Sternad’s lawyer, Enrique “Rick” Yabor, said his client was a victim, roped into a conspiracy by people like Alliegro. His client, he said, did the right thing in the end.

“I put my client in the best position possible to tell the truth and avoid a lengthy sentence,” Yabor said.

Whatever the government has on her, “Ana is in the same position,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s up to the government to decide if they move forward on Rivera.”

Busted in Nicaragua: ex-Rep. David Rivera's pal, Ana Alliegro, in FBI custody over campaign scheme