New people charged in Florida sham candidates investigation

TALLAHASSEE — A Republican political consultant and a Central Florida sham candidate are facing criminal charges in connection to a 2020 campaign finance scheme that is linked to a widening political scandal involving Florida Senate elections and dark money groups.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement on Tuesday announced the criminal charges against the consultant, James Eric Foglesong, of Winter Park, and the candidate, Jestine Iannotti, who moved to Sweden soon after the November 2020 election.

State investigators found Iannotti illegally accepted $1,200 from Foglesong in exchange for her candidacy. Investigators say Iannotti and Foglesong falsely used the names of other individuals as contributors in official campaign finance documents to “skirt Florida laws on campaign contributions.”

Investigators are also charging Benjamin Richard Paris, of Longwood, for taking part in the campaign finance scheme. He is accused of making one contribution through, or in the name of another in the election. Paris is a former mayor of Longwood.

“Lying about campaign donations is unacceptable because it provides an unfair advantage to the candidate. Protecting the integrity of our elections is a top priority in Florida, and that includes making sure candidates follow the laws,” FDLE Acting Commissioner Mark Glass said in a statement on Tuesday.

Iannotti ran as a no-party candidate in Senate District 9 against former Republican state Rep. Jason Brodeur and Democratic labor attorney Patricia Sigman. She kept a low profile and hardly campaigned. Her candidacy, however, was promoted in political mail advertisements paid for by a dark-money political group that is not legally required to reveal its donors.

The race was decided by 7,644 votes in favor of Brodeur. Iannotti received 5,787 votes.

The Central Florida case mirrors a criminal case in Miami-Dade County, where former Miami Republican state Sen. Frank Artiles is accused of recruiting an auto-parts dealer to run as a sham candidate in Miami-Dade’s Senate District 37 race. Artiles and the candidate, Alexis Pedro Rodriguez, are facing felony charges.

Related: Ahead of Frank Artiles trial, top Florida political players scrutinized

Investigators in Miami-Dade continue to look into who paid for deceptive political mail advertisements that promoted the sham candidates in the races. In January, Miami-Dade prosecutors appeared to be targeting prominent Republican and Democratic operatives in Florida for potential criminal charges, court records revealed. No charges have been filed, and the investigation is ongoing.

Frank Artiles' car as they raid his home in Palmetto Bay on March 17, 2021.
Frank Artiles’ car as they raid his home in Palmetto Bay on March 17, 2021.
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Iannotti and Foglesong will be prosecuted by the Office of the State Attorney in the 18th Judicial Circuit in Seminole and Brevard counties. Iannotti and Foglesong have until May 25 to turn themselves into the Seminole County Jail on $4,500 and $10,000 bond, respectively, investigators said.

It is unclear whether that investigation will also look into the dark money group connection like the case in Miami-Dade.

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