An auto parts salesman and acquaintance of a former Miami lawmaker accused of running a vote-siphoning scheme in a 2020 Florida Senate race pleaded guilty on Tuesday to charges that he accepted illegal donations and lied on sworn campaign documents, among other things.
Seated alongside his attorney in his downtown law office, Alexis Rodriguez heard the terms of his plea from circuit court Judge Andrea Ricker Wolfson, who is overseeing the case.
Rodriguez, who was recruited to run as a no-party candidate in the key Senate District 37 race by former state Sen. Frank Artiles, originally pleaded not guilty on four charges related to the alleged scheme. Under state law, those charges carry sentences of up to five years in prison.
The point of Rodriguez's candidacy, investigators said, was to "confuse voters and siphon votes from the incumbent." GOP Sen. Ileana Garcia won the election by 32 votes out of 215,000 ballots cast. Rodriguez, who shares a surname with the incumbent Democrat, received more than 6,000 votes.
Rodriguez pleaded guilty to four felony charges related to campaign-finance violations. Those include conspiracy to make campaign contributions in excess of legal limits and accepting and making those excess campaign contributions.
During Tuesday's hearing, Rodriguez spoke publicly for the first time since his arrest in the spring to apologize for his actions.
"I am deeply sorry for my actions and I want to apologize to my family, my loved ones and my friends," he said, in tears. "I would like to publicly offer a sincere apology to the residents of Florida District Senate 37 including [Democrat incumbent] Sen. José Javier Rodríguez, the people of Miami-Dade County and the state of Florida, and anyone else who was affected by my actions."
In exchange for his guilty plea, Rodriguez, who is represented by attorney William Barzee, will serve 36 months probation, including 12 months on house arrest with a GPS monitor. He can't work for any political campaigns during that time, and he has to cooperate with prosecutors.
Investigators say Artiles, a Republican, funneled more than $40,000 to Rodriguez in exchange for him changing his party affiliation from Republican and qualifying for the ballot as a no-party candidate in Senate District 37. They also say Rodriguez submitted false information on his sworn candidate documents, marking that he lived in a Palmetto Bay home when he was actually renting a house in Boca Raton at the time of the election. Knowingly filing an incorrect address with the state - or assisting someone to do so - is a third-degree felony.
Rodriguez previously faced up to 20 years in prison, five years for each of his four different charges.
Artiles, who has pleaded not guilty on similar charges related to the scheme, still faces trial.
Last week a Miami circuit court judge set a check-in hearing date for Oct. 19, after Artiles' lawyers asked for more time. The trial was originally set to begin Aug, 30.
Rodriguez's plea deal hasn't let him off the hook with the Florida Ethics Commission, which has called for a full evidentiary hearing that could result in fines of up to $20,000.
Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau reporter Ana Ceballos contributed to this report.