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- The Florida pollster Ryan Tyson is expected to be a top advisor in Ron DeSantis’ presidential bid.
- Tyson was at the heart of a 2020 political-corruption scandal in Florida.
- He funneled money from big-business groups to PACs backing straw-man candidates to split the vote.
The Republican pollster Ryan Tyson, who is expected to be the political director of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ presumptive presidential bid, was deeply enmeshed in a major Florida political-corruption scandal that has resulted in criminal charges for five people, two of whom have been convicted.
At the center of the scandal are “ghost candidates” — those drafted to run purely to siphon votes from an opposing party in close races.
After receiving money from a nonprofit affiliated with the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Tyson funneled $600,000 to a dark-money group, Grow United, that supported three ghost candidates running for Florida’s Senate, according to court records. The candidates had no political experience and did not campaign. One candidate was paid $44,000 to run.
Investigators notified Tyson in late 2021 he was a target of their inquiry, but no charges against him have been filed.
It’s not illegal to run ghost candidates, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, a Democrat, said at a news conference in 2021 after two people were arrested on campaign-finance charges in connection with the scheme. Rundle’s office has been one of the agencies investigating the scandal.
She added: “Is it an attack on our democracy? Is it a dirty political trick? Absolutely.”
DeSantis has not announced his candidacy for president, but he’s widely expected to do so in the next two months. He faces an uphill battle to secure the Republican nomination. DeSantis is polling well behind former President Donald Trump and lacks support in even his own backyard: The majority of Republican congresspeople from Florida’s delegation have backed Trump.
DeSantis’ office did not respond to a request for comment. In a text message, Tyson said he voluntarily cooperated with state investigators, was never subpoenaed, and had no contact with prosecutors since late 2021.
“I am not under investigation by any state or federal official,” Tyson wrote. “To suggest otherwise is false and, at this point, done with the express purpose of harming me and my reputation.”
The making of a ghost candidate
Tyson, 42, has risen from a self-described childhood working in watermelon fields to become one of DeSantis’ top political advisors. The University of Florida graduate is a pollster by trade, with close ties to Florida big business as the former vice president of political operations for the Associated Industries of Florida, an influential business group.
Tyson is “Ron DeSantis’ brain,” Peter Schorsch, the publisher of Florida Politics, said.
But Tyson has had some political stumbles. Last year, he helped run a $73 million constitutional-amendment campaign to expand gambling in Florida that failed to make it on the ballot because of irregularities with signatures collected, the Tampa Bay Times reported. In recent weeks, Tyson was unable to convince members of Florida’s congressional delegation to back DeSantis’ bid for president, Puck reported.
Tyson’s involvement in the ghost-candidate affair has also tarnished his reputation.
In September 2020, Tyson accepted $630,000 from a nonprofit with ties to the Florida Chamber of Commerce. Later that month, he transferred $600,000 to Grow United, which was run by consultants for the utility company Florida Power & Light, the Orlando Sentinel and the Miami Herald reported.
The Florida Chamber of Commerce and Florida Power & Light did not respond to requests for comment. Both have previously denied involvement in the scheme.
Two days later, Grow United routed $550,000 to two political action committees ostensibly headed by two women, a 25-year-old community-college student and a 23-year-old recent Florida State University graduate. Neither had political experience.
Behind the scenes, though, the PACs were directed by the Republican operative Alex Alvarado, according to court documents, who was paid roughly $4,000 a month by Tyson. Alvarado paid the two women $2,000 and $4,000 to have their names on the committees, according to their sworn statements.
The two PACs turned around and placed large orders for mailers portraying the three straw-man candidates as leftists. The print shop they used was run by Alvarado’s father-in-law.
—Sick Sad Girl (@DoubleDogDarrow) July 30, 2022
In a 2021 interview with investigators, Tyson acknowledged he knew Alvarado had set up the PACs to support no-name candidates and that running third-party candidates in tight races could split the vote, according to a transcript of the interview obtained by Insider.
“Typically, those are the candidates that’ll end up spoiling it for one of them,” he said. “If you’ve been around Florida politics, you know that third-party candidates can do that.”
While Tyson denied knowing his donations to Grow United would go toward propping up the sham candidates to split the vote and guarantee a Republican victory in the three tight contests, he said he “had a hunch” the money would support the candidates.
Close race tipped by a ghost candidate who did not campaign
In a Miami-area district, former Republican state Sen. Frank Artiles was accused of paying a friend, Alex Rodriguez, more than $44,000 to run as a shill candidate, according to court documents. At the time, Artiles was on the payroll of one of Tyson’s political-consulting groups, taking home roughly $5,000 a month, Tyson told investigators. Rodriguez shared the same last name as the Democratic incumbent, José Javier Rodriguez, who lost to the Republican Ileana Garcia by just 34 votes.
Alex Rodriguez has pleaded guilty to campaign-finance violations for accepting more than Florida’s maximum of $1,000 from an individual donor. Artiles was indicted in 2021 on charges including that he donated more than the individual maximum. He has pleaded not guilty and his trial is ongoing. An attorney for Artiles did not respond to a request for comment.
In a district near Seminole, in Central Florida, the Democrat Patricia Sigman earned 133,900 votes to the Republican Jason Brodeur’s 141,544. Jestine Iannotti, the third-party ghost candidate who was supported by Tyson via Grow United and the two PACs, earned 5,787 votes.
While Iannotti’s participation in the race wasn’t enough to tilt the field definitively in Brodeur’s favor, Iannotti and two Republican consultants were criminally charged with campaign-finance violations. One of the consultants, Seminole County GOP Chair Ben Paris, was found guilty in a jury trial last year of falsely listing his cousin as a donor to Iannotti on campaign-finance paperwork, the Orlando Sentinel reported.
In a December report, the nonpartisan election watchdog Integrity Florida slammed the ghost-candidate scandal as crossing “the legal and moral line.” The nonprofit echoed calls from a Florida legislator for the Department of Justice to investigate the scandal. The Department of Justice did not respond to a question about whether it’s investigating.
“The whole scheme just seems like it should be illegal,” Integrity Florida’s director, Ben Wilcox, told Insider. “We shouldn’t be able to meddle in a political race to that extent, to where you’re purposely deceiving voters. If it isn’t illegal, it should be.”
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