By Francisco Alvarado, BrowardBulldog.org
Lt. Governor Carlos Lopez-Cantera is a generous big brother.
On October 09, 2008, about a month before then-state Rep. Lopez-Cantera won re-election by nearly 20 percentage points, his sister and her husband, a Miami-Dade police lieutenant, got into the electioneering business, forming High Ridge Consultants.
Eleven days later, Lopez- Cantera’s campaign cut High Ridge a $7,500 check – the first of several payments totaling $37,500 for claimed re-election campaign work done in 2008 and 2010.
Lopez Cantera’s all-in-the-family arrangement became the focus of a public corruption probe four years ago by the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office into the alleged theft of campaign funds.
BrowardBulldog.org obtained a close out memo that explains how investigators determined that Lopez-Cantera’s sister, Monica Cantera-Serralta and husband Gadyaces Serralta, made a profit of nearly $10,000 during the 2008 campaign. Detectives did not examine payments made during the 2010 campaign.
Assistant state attorney Howard Rosen, who authored the March 14, 2011 close out memo, concluded that no crime was committed.
“While it may not look good to campaign contributors or to the general public that a company wholly held by the candidate’s sister and brother-in-law made a profit on the campaign,” Rosen wrote. “Actual work was done by them, and there is nothing to preclude them from profiting from their work.”
POLICE LIEUTENANT REPRIMANDED
Miami-Dade police reprimanded Lt. Serralta, whose makes $120,000 a year as a robbery bureau supervisor, for failing to tell his bosses he was moonlighting as a political consultant, according to his internal affairs file.
The Serraltas did not return several messages left on their work voicemails, and did not respond to a list of questions sent to their work email addresses.
High Ridge doesn’t have an office. The couple lists their South Miami home as the company’s address.
Monica Cantera-Serralta is head of property management and brokerage services at Pan American Companies, her family’s real estate development firm. On state incorporation records, she is listed as High Ridge’s secretary.
Last winter, Gov. Rick Scott tapped Lopez-Cantera, by then Miami-Dade’s elected property appraiser, to become the state’s first Cuban-American lieutenant governor. Lopez-Cantera replaced Jennifer Carroll, who resigned the post in 2013 after state agents questioned her about her ties to a nonprofit veterans organization suspected of fraud.
Today, Lopez-Cantera is on the Republican ticket with Scott in next month’s gubernatorial election against Democrat Charlie Crist and his running mate, Annette Taddeo.
Lopez-Cantera did not answer a list of questions about High Ridge provided to Rick Scott reelection campaign spokesman Greg Blair. “These are baseless accusations made years ago by a political opponent,” Blair said. “The state attorney reviewed and concluded they had no merit.”
That opponent Blair referred to is Alex Morales, a former executive director of the Hialeah Housing Authority who nevertheless has never run against Lopez-Cantera.
Morales declined to comment to a reporter, but according to the close out memo he filed a May 18, 2010 complaint with the Miami-Dade Police public corruption bureau alleging that “Lopez-Cantera misused campaign funds from his 2008 re-election campaign by siphoning out several thousand dollars through a fictitious company which did not do any real work for the campaign and which was owned by his family members.”
Robert Jarvis, a Nova Southeastern University law and ethics professor, said it was odd that an experienced politician like Lopez-Cantera – who held a house seat from 2004 to 2012 and spent his last two years as House Majority Leader – would hire a company owned by family members with no prior campaign experience during the final stretch of an election.
At the time High Ridge was hired in 2008, Lopez-Cantera’s campaign already had three established Miami-Dade political consulting firms – Edge Communications, G & R Strategies, and Marin & Sons – on the payroll.
“It looks like featherbedding,” said Jarvis, referring to the practice of hiring more employees than are needed to do the job. “It looks like, ‘I’m going to take care of my relatives.’”
The public corruption investigation focused on the fees High Ridge received from Lopez-Cantera’s 2008 campaign.
Investigators subpoenaed High Ridge’s bank records and found 46 canceled checks totaling $5,760 used to pay poll workers on Nov. 5, 2008, the day after the election. The Serraltas also provided receipts and invoices for $6,698 used to pay for boxed lunches provided to poll workers, polo shirts, rental cars, gasoline, a victory party, and purchases at BJs, Costco and Office Depot.
Gadyace Serralta told detectives that High Ridge made approximately $9,606 for “get out the vote” services. He also said there was no written contract between his firm and Lopez-Cantera’s campaign “due to the familial proximity.”
In all, Lopez-Cantera’s 2008 campaign paid High Ridge $22,500 in three payments. The first payment, for $7,500, was made on Oct. 20, 11 days after the company was established. High Ridge collected another $10,000 on Nov. 5, the day after the election, and $5,000 more on Dec. 9, according to Lopez-Cantera’s 2008 campaign finance report.
The campaign also made individual payments of $8,000 and $1,152 in December and January, respectively, to Monica Cantera-Serralta, who served as her brother’s treasurer, according to his 2008 campaign finance report. The payments were for her work as treasurer.
In the 2010 campaign, High Ridge received $15,000 from the campaign.
The only other candidate to hire High Ridge during the same time period was Lopez-Cantera’s House ally, Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami. Fresen’s campaign made three payments totaling $23,700 between Dec. 9, 2008 and Dec. 30, 2010.
The Serraltas appear to have given up the elections biz. In 2012, High Ridge did not work on Lopez-Cantera’s successful bid for Miami-Dade Property Appraiser.
Still, Nova’s Jarvis says the relationship between High Ridge and the two Lopez-Cantera campaigns is the type of insider dealing that erodes public trust in elected officials. “Is he looking out for taxpayers?” Jarvis said. “Or is he looking out for family and friends?”