By David Adams
MIAMI (Reuters) - A campaign finance scandal involving a South Florida Republican could open the door to a surprise congressional victory for his Democratic party challenger, resulting in the election of Miami's first Cuban-American Democrat.
The race for Florida's 26th district between two rival Cuban Americans is setting a new standard for dirty tricks, even for Miami's politically passionate Cuban exile community.
The electoral shenanigans, which have dominated local news and prompted an FBI probe, went viral nationwide in a video when a local TV reporter knocked on the door of a candidate involved in the scandal and was doused with a jug of water.
David Rivera, a one-term Cuban-American Republican and hardline crusader against Cuba's communist government, is seeking re-election in a rematch against Joe Garcia.
Before being elected to Congress, Rivera served eight years in the Florida Legislature, sharing a house in Tallahassee with fellow Republican and rising political star Marco Rubio.
Garcia, a former Department of Energy official, is also a tough critic of Cuba's government, though he supports the Obama administration's moderate policy of "people-to-people" exchanges, including cultural visits and unrestricted travel for Cuban exile families.
Polls by both parties show Garcia now leading by at least 9 percentage points in what would be a surprise pickup for the Democrats.
In a bizarre twist, Rivera is accused of interfering in the Democratic party's August primary by allegedly funneling at least $40,000 in cash to the campaign of a candidate running against Garcia, according to two sources who worked on the campaign.
The money went to pay for campaign mailings backing another virtual unknown, Justin Sternad. An unemployed former hotel worker, Sternad was making his first bid for public office.
Among the mailings, Sternad professed to be an Obama fan while raising questions about Garcia's recent divorce, suggesting he left his wife while she was battling cancer, an accusation the Garcia campaign strongly rejects.
"This case has layer after layer of unreality," said Seth Gordon, 63, a former political consultant in Miami. "We have scruffy campaign practices here, but it's mostly low-grade stuff. This is pretty high-grade."
Sternad's attorney declined to comment.
Sternad's campaign team included Ana Alliegro, 42, a political consultant who is a friend of Rivera and calls herself a "Republican Political Guru and Conservative Bad Girl!" on her Facebook page.
Alliegro went missing soon after the allegations about the payments surfaced. Her lawyer told Reuters that he doesn't know where she is.
Rivera denies he had anything to do with Sternad's campaign. "Congressman Rivera has never met Mr. Sternad, has never spoken to Mr. Sternad, knows nothing about Mr. Sternad and has no connection whatsoever to Mr. Sternad or his campaign," he said in a statement.
Garcia eventually won the primary easily with 53 percent of the vote, though Sternad still managed to come in third with 10 percent, beating out two other candidates.
Despite the occasional whiff of scandal, no south Florida congressman has ever been indicted while in office. Democratic party Congressman and former judge Alcee Hastings was impeached by Congress in 1989 and removed from the bench but earned sweet revenge by getting himself elected to Congress in 1992.
This is not the first time Rivera has faced allegations of campaign finance mischief. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office recently closed an 18-month investigation into alleged misuse by Rivera of campaign contributions without filing any charges.
The present accusations are potentially far more serious.
Rivera provided tens of thousands of dollars in cash to finance Sternad's campaign, according to the companies that handled the mailing of flyers.
Federal campaign finance law limits contributions to $2,500 per person in a primary, and only $100 in cash, according to the Federal Election Commission.
When a veteran political reporter from the local ABC affiliate tried to interview the candidate at home, Sternad's wife gave him the water treatment.
John Borrero, president of Rapid Mail Inc, told Reuters the mailings were paid for by Rivera in cash, totaling more than $40,000. "I never talked to. Everything was orchestrated by ... David Rivera," Borrero said.
Borrero said he has worked for a lot of campaigns but usually is paid with checks from campaign accounts. "They paid in cash. It seemed odd, but I don't question who mails what, unless it's a bomb," he said.
Borrero said he gave a statement to FBI agents who visited his office and also turned over purchase orders, Post Office receipts and bank deposit records.
"It's federal now. I gave them everything," he said.
The FBI office in Miami said it had no comment.
Hugh Cochran, president of Campaign Data, told Reuters that his company compiled the mailing list data at Rivera's request.
Cochran, a retired FBI agent, said he didn't realize the data was intended for Sternad's campaign until later when he spoke to Borrero. "I was baffled by that," he said.
(Editing by Prudence Crowther)