By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
Miami Congresswoman Maria Elvira Salazar’s re-election committee has amassed $147,400 in illegal excessive campaign contributions for her primary, according to a pair of recent warning letters from the Federal Elections Commission.
The over-the-legal-limit donations include $5,700 from Abelardo de la Espriella, a Colombian lawyer and U.S. permanent resident who up until two years ago was the criminal defense attorney for a fellow countryman targeted in a Colombian money-laundering probe involving ill-gotten government contracts in Venezuela. The FEC also flagged $5,700 which de la Espriella’s wife, Ana Lucia Pineda, donated to Salazar for Congress’s primary election. Both amounts are above the $2,900 federal cap each individual is allowed to give per election.
According to previous media reports, de la Espriella quit representing Alex Saab when the Colombian businessman was sanctioned and indicted by the U.S. government for allegedly cutting shady government deals with the stepsons of Socialist strongman Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.
So far, Salazar for Congress has refunded only $8,145 in donations while building up a $1.1 million war chest, according to the Political Action Committee’s most recent finance reports.
Salazar, running on a predominantly pro-Donald Trump, anti-socialism platform, beat Democratic incumbent Donna Shalala by two percentage points to claim Florida’s 27th Congressional District, which includes large swathes of Coral Gables, Miami Beach and Miami. Salazar’s Nov. 3 win was a huge upset victory for the former Spanish-language television journalist whose biggest claim to fame may have been her one-on-one interview with Fidel Castro in 1991.
“We always return anything in excess of what the law allows,” Salazar said during a brief Florida Bulldog phone interview. “I don’t do compliance, but we have a very well versed accountant who will take care of that. We are going to give it back.”
She also appreciates de la Espriella’s financial support, Salazar added. “He is a prominent Colombian attorney who lives in my district,” she said. “I know him. I don’t know his clients. I thank him for his contributions.”
FEC DISMISSES COMPLAINT
Salazar’s campaign received FEC warning letters on June 30 and Aug. 3. In between those letters, the FEC wrapped up an inquiry into a complaint alleging campaign finance violations during the November 2020 election by her PAC, according to records reviewed by Florida Bulldog.
On July 14, the FEC’s five-member board unanimously voted to dismiss a complaint based on a recommendation by the commission’s general counsel that the inquiry represented a low- priority investigation. The complaint alleged that Salazar’s committee failed to disclose all the identifying information of its donors such as their occupations and employers, noting that one campaign report contained insufficient data on 133 contributions from 91 individuals totaling $283,200.
In addition, Salazar’s campaign received excess contributions above the $2,900 limit per election and that the FEC had sent warning letters to the PAC about excessive contributions throughout the 2020 election cycle, the complaint states.
In its response, the PAC’s then-treasurer Paul Kilgore said Salazar for Congress complied with the FEC’s best efforts requirements for obtaining employer and occupation information from donors such as sending letters to anyone who had not done so within 30 days of accepting contributions. The PAC also issued a refund of two possibly excessive contributions identified in a Sept. 14, 2020 warning letter, according to the response.
According to the most recent FEC letters, Salazar for Congress accepted $76,800 in excessive contributions identified in its April quarterly report, including the combined $11,200 from de Espriella and Pineda. The other $71,400 in excessive contributions were identified in the July quarterly report. The couple were also among seven people who each gave $13,600 to a joint fundraising committee, the Salazar Victory Committee, which does not have any contribution limits.
Other flagged excessive donations include $8,600 from Energy Capital Partners founder Douglas Kimmelman and $6,800 from Florida East Coast Industries Chief Strategy Officer Husein Cumber.
Juan-Carlos “J.C.” Planas, an elections-law attorney and former state representative who filed the complaint, said the latest warnings from the FEC show Salazar’s committee still suffers from sloppy fundraising mistakes. Planas, who left the Republican Party in 2019 and became a registered Democrat right after the 2020 presidential election, said the donations from de la Espriella also raise red flags about why Salazar would need to raise money from a lawyer who doesn’t have a license to practice in Florida and can’t vote. (Federal elections law does allow permanent residents to make campaign contributions to federal candidates.)
“A good treasurer is supposed to have a proper data bank to make sure these problems don’t happen,” Planas said. “This is not something you let slide.”
Furthermore, Salazar may have a different explanation for accepting donations from de la Espriella. “Here we have a guy who represented someone who is pretty damn shady and is [in league] with the Venezuelan Communist government,” Planas said. “It raises concerns because her answer for how she knows [de la Espriella] is not a very good answer.”
VENEZUELAN CORRUPTION CONNECTION
In the summer of 2019, when the heat was turning up on Saab, de la Espriella released a lengthy press statement about his dealings with the Colombian businessman. Saab had been his firm’s client for six years and was the businessman’s criminal defense attorney during a Colombian money-laundering investigation.
He stopped representing Saab in July 2019 when the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned his then-client and Maduro’s stepsons for orchestrating a corruption scheme involving overvalued government food contracts, de la Espriella explained. According to OFAC, Saab’s racket enabled Maduro and his regime to “significantly profit from food imports and distribution in Venezuela.” The same month, the feds indicted Saab and a co-conspirator on seven counts of money laundering and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering.
According to federal prosecutors and OFAC, Saab exploited his ties with Maduro insiders as early as 2009, frequently paying bribes and kickbacks to Venezuelan government officials in exchange for inflated government contracts. Saab was arrested in the Cape Verde Islands as he tried to flee to Iran, according to press reports.
De la Espriella told Univision in June 2020 that he stopped representing Saab because he had not obtained a license required by OFAC to represent a sanctioned individual.
Andres Rivero, a Miami-based white collar crime defense lawyer and former federal prosecutor, said it is not uncommon for anti-Communist Miami Republicans to take money from sources who have direct and indirect ties to people doing business with the Venezuelan regime.
During the 2020 Miami-Dade mayoral race, then-candidate Esteban Bovo fired his fundraiser Esther Nuhfer following a Miami Herald story that her company, Communication Solutions, was paid $3.5 million by former Miami congressman David Rivera’s firm, Interamerican Consulting. The funds came from the proceeds of a $50-million contract between a subsidiary of Venezuela’s state-run oil company and Interamerican, according to the Miami Herald. Bovo, who at the time was a county commissioner and whose father fought in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, said he could not reconcile his resolve to fight against Latin American “tyrannical” Communist dictatorships with Nuhfer alleged profiting from a Socialist government.
“It’s pretty ironic, but Salazar is not the first,” attorney Rivero said. “What is separately interesting is that people are not paying attention to the big picture. There is so much Venezuelan money flooding into our area. The instability of these governments is not just resulting in flight capital, but it is also bringing political influence and corruption from Latin America.”