TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — The Florida Ethics Commission on Wednesday found probable cause that Rep. David Rivera, who is in a tight re-election race, committed 11 violations of ethics laws while he was a state legislator.
Accusations against the Miami Republican include receiving income from Southwest Florida Enterprises Inc., a company involved with Flagler Dog Track in Miami, that he knew or should have known was given to influence his vote or official action and using campaign funds for non-campaign expenses.
Rivera also is alleged to have had a $1 million contract through Millennium Marketing, Inc., with Southwest Florida Enterprises that created a frequent conflict between his private interests and public duties. Millennium, a company founded by Rivera's mother, signed the 2006 contract to manage a successful campaign to expand slot machine gambling in Miami-Dade County through a referendum.
Rivera issued a statement vehemently denying wrongdoing and accusing the bipartisan commission of choosing "to play politics by injecting itself into the middle of an election" through previously investigated complaints filed by his political opponents.
"These allegations are false and will be dismissed shortly," Rivera said. "Respectfully, shame on the Florida Ethics Commission. I look forward once again to disproving these false allegations and demonstrating the frivolous nature of these complaints."
Ethical questions have lingered over Rivera since he was elected to Congress two years ago, and they have overshadowed his rematch with Democratic challenger Joe Garcia, a former Obama administration official in the Department of Energy.
Garcia's campaign issued a statement calling the charges "embarrassing to our entire community" and saying voters will have a chance on Nov. 6 to "turn the page on Mr. Rivera's scandals."
The congressman also remains under federal investigation for potential tax violations. A related Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation cleared him of criminal allegations in April, but the Ethics Commission relied heavily on information gathered by the FDLE.
Rivera can seek a hearing to dispute the allegations or a settlement with the commission. The panel is powerless to penalize him, but the Florida House could take action based on its findings.
Rivera personally tried to get the ethics commission to delay its probable cause hearing, held behind closed doors on Friday, which would have pushed it past the election, according to records released Wednesday. His lawyers also pressed for a delay, saying it would be "extremely prejudicial" to have it decided so close to the election.
Rivera received payments from Millennium and voted for a 2007 bill that increased the number of slot machines allowed at pari-mutuel facilities, including 25 percent more for Flagler, according to a recommendation from the commission's advocate, Diane Guillemette, who works in the attorney general's office.
The commission found no probable cause of a voting conflict due to a five-year statute of limitations but cited the 2007 vote to support findings of unauthorized compensation and having conflicting employment or contractual relationships.
Records show Rivera was not interviewed for the case, but his lawyer, Richard Coates, submitted a lengthy letter to the commission in August that denied all allegations.
Coates characterized the payments Rivera received through Millennium as loans that he fully repaid, but Guillemette wrote that "a trier of fact could make a reasonable inference that they were in fact compensation which Respondent attempted to disguise as loans when his financial disclosures were questioned."
The commission also found probable cause for six alleged financial disclosure violations and that he misused his position to request state reimbursement for travel already paid for by has campaign account. Another finding was that he allegedly failed to report a debt.
Guillemette added that it was reasonable for Southwest Florida Enterprises to expect Rivera's vote for the bill because it was paying him "to further gaming in Miami-Dade County."
Rivera also filed a proposed state constitutional amendment, HJR 849, after the company stopped payments but didn't pursue it after Southwest Florida Enterprises made a $460,363 payment to Millennium.
"If HJR 849 was not based upon the will of his constituency, why would Respondent file it, other than to induce payment from SWFE?" Guillemette asked.
Southwest Florida Enterprises vice president Alex Havenick, whose family owns Flagler, signed the contract with Millennium, which at the time was being run by a friend of Rivera's mother. The family also confirmed that, prior to his death in 2006, Fred Havenick reached a verbal agreement with Rivera to lead the slots campaign, Guillemette wrote.
Coates denied Rivera received any money from gambling interests, again arguing the money he received from Millennium came in the form of loans.
"Second, any gaming legislation in which Mr. Rivera had a role was statewide in nature and did not affect, impact or benefit any specific or exclusive entity," Coates wrote.
He contended Rivera's campaign never reimbursed him for the travel for which he billed the state and that his financial disclosure filing were in compliance or amended to bring them into compliance.
Associated Press writer Gary Fineout contributed to this report.