Wexler congressional aide got kickback in campaign deal; pleads guilty to federal tax charge


Daniella Howard with President Obama

By Dan Christensen,

An aide and fundraiser to former Congressman Robert Wexler has pleaded guilty to providing false information to the Internal Revenue Service about a $15,000 kickback she received for a controversial real estate investment by the South Florida Democrat’s campaign. 

Daniella Howard, 44, of Pompano Beach, was sentenced by a federal judge to serve one year on probation and pay the government $3,200 in restitution. She could have drawn up to a year in prison and a fine of $10,000 on the misdemeanor charge. 

Howard still faces possible civil tax penalties, according to charging documents. 

Prosecutors kept Howard’s case low key and moved it swiftly through the court system. Charges were filed on April 11, a Monday. By Friday, April 15, Howard’s plea was taken and a judge had pronounced sentence. No press release was issued by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. 

Authorities would not answer questions about the case, or say whether the joint FBI/IRS money laundering investigation that led to the criminal charge against Howard is now concluded. 

“We don’t really have a comment,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Marlene Rodriguez, an office spokeswoman. 

Howard, who also goes by the name Daniella Acosta, signed a plea agreement with Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Carlton on Feb. 4, court records show. Carlton is a public corruption prosecutor based in West Palm Beach. 

In exchange for Howard’s cooperation, the government agreed to recommend the judge go easy on Howard based upon her “recognition and affirmative and timely acceptance of personal responsibility.” 

Federal Election Commission (FEC) records show that Howard was on the Wexler’s campaign’s payroll as recently as the last quarter of 2010. 

Bruce Udolf, Howard’s defense lawyer, would not discuss the case. “I have no comment other than to tell you that I was advised the investigation is over,” he said. 

‘Fire-breathing liberal’ quits 

Wexler, a self-described “fire-breathing liberal” whose district included parts of Broward and Palm Beach counties, surprised the political world in October 2009 when he announced that he was quitting his politically safe seat in Congress to take a job as president of a Washington-based Middle East think tank founded by Slim-Fast founder S. Daniel Abraham. His final day was Jan. 2, 2010. 

Wexler could not be reached for comment. 

In November, Broward Bulldog reported that Wexler stepped down after federal agents interviewed at least four persons about his campaign’s unconventional $150,000 investment in the same real estate deal that has now led to Howard’s guilty plea.  

Howard with Chicago Mayor-Elect Rahm Emanuel

Robert Wexler for Congress, an active political committee that reported $304,000 cash on hand as of March 31, made its initial $150,000 investment in Capital Gains Real Estate Consultants (CGREC), a company whose principal owner was Roy T. Amico. 

Amico was a stockbroker who knew Wexler and managed some of his campaign’s money. He was also Howard’s ex-boyfriend. 

Court records filed by the government say that Howard had the authority to invest campaign funds “subject to the approval of her supervisors.” The records say Howard first sought Amico’s advice about where to invest campaign funds in 1999 – when the campaign and Amico’s office at the Joseph Charles & Associates brokerage firm were in the same building at 2500 Military Trail in Boca Raton. 

Amico got out of the stock selling business and in 2003 founded CGREC along with his brother Armand and Palm Beach political consultant Tom Plant. That November, Howard personally invested $6,000 with Amico, court records say. 

A few months later, in March 2004, Howard invested $150,000 from the Wexler campaign — money contributed by his political supporters – in the same investment at 6.5 percent interest. The investment was approved by Wexler campaign supervisors. 

To secure its investment, the campaign took back a $150,000 mortgage and promissory note on a waterfront home on South Flagler Drive in West Palm Beach. The Amico brothers bought the home for $975,000 in January 2004 with the intent of flipping it to another buyer, Roy Amico said in an interview last fall. 

While the Wexler campaign later got its $150,000 investment repaid with interest, the campaign did not report the transaction on its FEC disclosure reports. By law, campaigns are required to report all “debts and obligations owed to” them. 

Amico pays Howard $15,000 

Court records say that in January 2006 Howard and Amico agreed to reinvest $150,000 of campaign funds into the same home. But this time, Amico paid Howard 10 percent of the investment – $15,000 – which she deposited into her personal account at Wachovia Bank. The transaction was approved by Wexler campaign supervisors, but the records do not say whether they were aware of the kickback. 

In exchange, the campaign received a new mortgage on the property that it did not record at the county property appraiser’s office for more than two years. No explanation was offered in government filings, which inexplicably also misstate the date of the mortgage recording by two years. 

The campaign wasn’t the only investor in the property. Several banks made bad loans, as did an elderly Chicago man who a Palm Beach judge ruled last year was defrauded of $330,000 by Amico and CGREC. 

The real estate crash ultimately sank Amico’s plans, CGREC and the campaign’s $150,000 investment. 

The only person to make money on the deal was Howard, who took Amico’s kickback. 

Howard owns a $400,000 home a block from the beach near Hillsboro Inlet. But when she filed her 2006 tax return, the records say, she underreported “at least $12,000 in income – specifically the $15,000 in funds that she received from Amico.” 

Two years ago Amico was at the center of another controversy involving the Wexler campaign. 

Amico used to work for Fort Lauderdale’s Newbridge Securities. For years, the campaign listed Newbridge as a source of investment income . But in July 2008, the campaign amended 25 disclosure reports dating to 2001 to remove Newbridge’s name. 

A campaign spokesman said at the time that the changes were made to properly identify the firms Amico was affiliated with after he left Newbridge in 2002.

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