By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
Teressa Maria Cervera, a Miami-Dade judicial candidate who’s been the subject of two recent Florida Bar complaints alleging deceitful behavior, has put an influential right-wing provocateur on her campaign’s payroll.
And voila! His ultra-conservative, faith-based nonprofit endorsed the private practice lawyer in the Aug. 23 primary.
The hiring of Anthony Verdugo Jr., founder and executive director of Miami-based Christian Family Coalition Florida, is among several red flags that make Cervera unqualified for a judgeship, her critics claim. The Republican-leaning coalition picked Cervera over incumbent Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Lody Jean, a Gov. Ron DeSantis appointee, according to the group’s voter guide.
While it’s not unusual for candidates from both sides of the aisle in nonpartisan county races to show up at Christian Family events, employing its leader to help her get elected raises doubts about Cervera’s ability to be impartial should she become a judge, said J.C. Planas, a Cuban American lawyer and ex-state legislator. Last week, Planas filed complaints with the Florida Bar and the Judicial Qualifications Commission against Cervera, but unrelated to her hiring of Verdugo.
“There’s a difference between going to an event and someone who is purposely hiring these people to be their consultant,” Planas said. “It says that they have a very specific agenda and are probably not willing to be neutral.”
VERDUGO’S HISTORY OF BIGOTED REMARKS
Verdugo has a history of making bigoted statements against the LGBTQ community, not to mention seeking to diminish their rights in a free society, Planas said. “Verdugo has bastardized the word of God,” Planas said. “The fact he works as a consultant when he runs a supposed not-for-profit is just as shady in itself.”
In 2002, Verdugo was charged with one felony count of falsely swearing that he had witnessed someone signing a petition calling for a referendum repealing Miami-Dade’s anti-discrimination protections for gay men, lesbians and bisexual individuals. Prosecutors abandoned the case after he completed a pre-trial diversion program as a first-time offender.
Verdugo and his coalition represent the grassroots components of the Florida GOP’s culture war against abortion and LGBTQ persons. During the most recent legislative session, Verdugo’s group successfully lobbied for the passage of a 15-week abortion ban and the Parental Rights in Education Act, which prohibits classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity from kindergarten to third grade in Florida’s public schools.
When the state’s Agency for Health Care Administration recently announced it would bar transgender Floridians from using Medicaid to pay for gender-affirming care, which several accredited medical pediatric institutions say improves the mental health and overall well-being of patients, Verdugo released a statement that read in part: “AHCA correctly concluded that taxpayers should not foot the bill for radical transgender procedures being pushed by gender ideologues with no basis in science.”
At a June Christian Family breakfast celebrating its legislative wins, Verdugo took some time to gloat about the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade: “I just want to say this morning, you woke up in a nation that is pro-life.”
Since July 11, Cervera’s campaign has made four payments totaling $6,668 to Verdugo’s political consulting company Winning Strategies for “church visits and radio appearances,” according to campaign finance reports. The campaign also paid Christian Family $533.90 for an advertisement on June 22.
When initially reached by Florida Bulldog on her cellphone on Aug. 15, Cervera said she was at the polls courting early voters and could not talk. She did not respond to subsequent phone messages and emails seeking comment. Verdugo also did not respond to requests for comment.
SO, CANDIDATE, WHAT’S YOUR NAME?
In his complaint, Planas accuses Cervera of lying in press interviews about when and why she changed her last name from her maiden name, Tylman, to her married name, Cervera. For a majority of her professional career until deciding to run for judge in April, the Anglo attorney was Teressa “Tessa” Tylman.
Planas, an adjunct law professor at St. Thomas University, is among dozens of prominent members of Miami-Dade’s legal community openly criticizing Cervera and Renier Diaz de La Portilla, who is running against Miami-Dade Judge Fred Seraphin, for choosing prominent Haitian-American judges as their opponents because both of them believe their last names will give them an advantage with voters in predominantly Hispanic Miami-Dade. (Diaz de la Portilla’s campaign reports also show a $1,000 payment to the far-right Verdugo’s Winning Strategies on Aug. 5.)
“It is bad enough that Cervera (Tylman) chose a well-respected Haitian American judge to run against,” Planas’s complaint states. “But she specifically changed her name to do it in a thinly disguised attempt to make herself seem Hispanic.”
Planas, who also filed judicial and bar complaints against Diaz de la Portilla that allege dirty campaigning, claims Cervera gave answers to local media outlets that “completely violates judicial ethics regarding candor and truthfulness.” The Cervera complaint cites a May 12 interview with Political Cortadito blogger Elaine De Valle in which she claimed she’s used her married name since 2014 when she tied the knot with Becker & Poliakoff attorney Adam Cervera, including having all her identification cards under the name Cervera. She made a similar statement to the Daily Business Review, the complaint states.
Planas claims part of Cervera’s statement is “a blatant lie and a complete impossibility” because a $380,240 Wells Fargo Bank mortgage on the home she and her husband own shows she was using the name Tylman in 2017. She also signed the loan document under her maiden name.
Even more recently, the judicial candidate and her parents obtained a $500,000 loan from Truist Bank in December 2021 for a refinancing of a Coral Springs home. The document lists her as Teressa Tylman Cervera.
A PATTERN OF ALLEGED DECEIT
Cervera has also faced accusations of dishonesty from a former client, Thais Alvarez, a former Miami-Dade College of Law professor. Last year, Alvarez filed a bar complaint accusing Cervera, who at the time was still known professionally as Tylman. The teacher, a Hollywood homeowner who cannot vote in Miami-Dade elections, alleges Cervera intentionally misled her about the payment agreement with her insurer ARAG Group in connection with representing her in a 2020 small-claims case against a septic tank manufacturer.
According to the bar complaint, Cervera represented Alvarez between May and August 2020. During that time, Cervera did not explicitly explain a $2,000 cap on fees to Alvarez until it was time to go to trial. By then, Cervera had gone over the limit by $1,000 and the insurer refused to pay more. As a result, Cervera dropped the case and Alvarez was unable to recoup any money from the manufacturer, the complaint alleges. Moreover, Cervera wasted Alvarez’s time for four months because had she known about the $2,000 cap, she would not have agreed to go to trial, the complaint states.
As part of her complaint, Alvarez included copies of an email Cervera sent to an ARAG representative on Aug. 4, 2020 at 11:05 a.m. that stated “the attorneys fees have already hit (and exceeded) the amount in question. I will finalize my most recent invoice for your review. But want to let you know based on the provisions of my contract.”
Five minutes later, Cervera sent Alvarez a “draft” of the same email she had already sent the ARAG representative asking her client to approve it or revise as necessary after the fact. The “draft” did not include references to the fees being exceeded and the sentence about the “provisions of my contract.”
Alvarez alleged when comparing the original email to the draft that it’s apparent Cervera deleted sections from the “draft” that would have raised alarms about the fee arrangement.
A MISUNDERSTANDING, THE BAR SAYS
However, the Florida Bar chalked it up to a misunderstanding between Cervera and Alvarez, dismissing the complaint on June 23. Instead, the Florida Bar issued Cervera a “letter of advice” that states “there was no malintention on the part of anyone in this matter.
“Rather, it seems to have been an unfortunate misunderstanding and/or miscommunication
by all, including ARAG,” the letter states. “Regardless, it is the obligation of the attorney to prevent miscommunication and misunderstanding and to ensure a complete understanding by the client of all aspects of the attorney-client relationship.”
Since dismissing her complaint, the Florida Bar has denied two requests by Alvarez to review its decision. In a July 27 email to the bar counsel overseeing her complaint, Alvarez wrote: “I am appalled to learn how another attorney can intentionally and deliberately misguide a client only to have the bar not only minimize an attorney’s conduct but also mischaracterize the facts to reach a faulty opinion.”
In a phone interview, Alvarez said she found out Cervera was running for Miami-Dade judge after seeing a campaign poster. “I was shocked,” Alvarez said. “It took me a minute because I know her as Tylman. She blindsided me in dropping my case.”
As far as Cervera hiring Christian Family’s Verdugo to work her on campaign, Alvarez said: “We don’t need that kind of Banana Republic nonsense on the bench.”
Meanwhile, some Miami-Dade voters just received text messages in English and Spanish purported to be from the Christian Family Coalition suggesting Gov. DeSantis is endorsing Cervera.
The mass texts included images of Cervera, DeSantis, the Christian Family logo, the phrase “rated highly qualified” and the following message: “Teressa Maria Cervera is the ONLY candidate in judicial group 3 rated HIGHLY QUALIFIED by the Christian Family Coalition. Just like our very own Governor Ron DeSantis.”
The texts contain no disclaimer that Cervera’s campaign is paying the coalition’s executive director.
Dotty Vasquez, a Palmetto Bay resident volunteering for Lody Jean, said the text message was sent to her, her daughter and granddaughter. It was an insulting attempt to fool Republican voters, and given DeSantis appointed Jean in 2020, he would not be endorsing her opponent, Vasquez said.
“I called Verdugo and he claimed that he didn’t know anything about it,” Vasquez said. “It’s so bad. These kinds of desperate tactics are what you expect from a losing campaign.”