SANFORD, Fla. – Jury selection began Monday in the first of three criminal trials related to Seminole County’s so-called “ghost candidate” scheme to influence a 2020 Florida senate election.
A jury was seated Monday afternoon, including six people and two alternates. Opening statements are set to begin Wednesday.
Benjamin Paris, chairman of the Seminole County Republican Party, has pleaded not guilty to one count of illegally making a campaign contribution in the name of another person.
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If convicted of the misdemeanor, Paris faces up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
According to court records, Jestine Iannotti is prepared to testify in the trial that Paris recruited her in 2020 to run as an independent candidate in the race for the District 9 State Senate seat.
At the time, Paris was working at the Seminole County Chamber of Commerce under Jason Brodeur, the incumbent Republican state senator.
Brodeur is not accused of any wrongdoing and has denied knowledge of the “ghost candidate” scheme.
Many political observers believe Iannotti, who did very minimal campaigning, entered the race to draw votes away from Brodeur’s Democratic opponent, Patricia Sigman.
Brodeur won the election by 7,644 votes over Sigman. Iannotti’s 5,787 votes ultimately did not alter the outcome of the race.
“Some NPA candidates, commonly referred to as ‘ghost’ candidates, have been used by political parties as a way to close elections or siphon off votes,” State Attorney Phil Archer said in May. “While not illegal per se, many have questioned the ethics of the practice.”
Paris is accused of making a $200 contribution to Iannotti’s campaign under his cousin’s name instead of his own, as state campaign finance law requires.
That cousin, Steven Smith, told investigators he did not give money to Iannotti. Instead, according to court records, Smith claims Paris asked if he could donate to a “friend” under Smith’s name because “he had already reached the campaign donation limits.”
Iannotti faces several charges, including commission of a false, fictitious, or fraudulent act, statement or representation, accepting an aggregate cash contribution from the same contributor in an election, and false reporting or deliberate failure to include information.
James Eric Foglesong, a Central Florida political consultant, also faces several charges related to illegal campaign contributions and commission of a false, fictitious or fraudulent act, statement or representation.
Iannotti and Foglesong have pleaded not guilty.
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