3 face charges in ‘ghost candidate’ scheme to influence 2020 Florida Senate election, officials say

Scheme supported independent candidate for Florida Senate, FDLE says

Charges were announced against Eric Foglesong, Jestine Iannoti and Benjamin Paris.

ORLANDO, Fla. – Three people are facing state charges related to a scheme to influence a Florida Senate race with a so-called “ghost candidate” during the 2020 election, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

FDLE said Jestine Iannoti, 36, who ran as an independent candidate for Florida Senate District 9, accepted an illegal cash campaign donation from political advisor Eric Foglesong, 45. FDLE said the two falsely used the names of other people as contributors in campaign finance documents, skirting Florida laws on campaign contributions.

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A third person, Benjamin Paris, is accused of providing the name and address of one of the people falsely used in the campaign finance reporting. Paris is the former mayor of Longwood and currently the chairman of the Seminole County Republican Party’s executive board.

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.

Foglesong also faces several charges related to illegal campaign contributions and commission of a false, fictitious or fraudulent act, statement or representation.

This is not the first election crime Foglesong has been arrested for. He pleaded guilty to grand theft for stealing $20,000 from a political action committee linked to Orange County Sheriff John Mina in 2019. As part of a plea deal, he was placed on supervised probation for three years and the judge withheld adjudication, so he has no criminal record.

Paris faces one count of making one contribution through or in the name of another in any election.

According to original reporting from the Orlando Sentinel, the purpose of the campaign was to use Iannoti to siphon votes away from Democrat Patricia Sigman to help State Sen. Jason Brodeur, a Republican, win the election. Brodeur won with 50% of the vote, but it is not clear that Iannoti’s candidacy helped Brodeur.

The Sentinel alleges the scheme in Seminole County is similar to one in South Florida, in which a “ghost candidate,” Alex Rodriguez, did succeed in siphoning votes away from the Democratic incumbent, Jose Rodriguez, and helped elect Republican challenger Ileana Garcia by 32 votes.

Rodriguez pleaded guilty last year to accepting illegal campaign donations and lying on campaign documents.

State Attorney Phil Archer, whose office will prosecute the case, issued this statement Tuesday:

“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. While not illegal per se, many have questioned the ethics of the practice. However, when that candidate and the partisan political operatives involved violate election finance laws by illegally funding those races and filing false reports, it is the responsibility of government to act.”

News 6 reporter Mike DeForest contributed to this report.

About the Authors:

Christie joined the ClickOrlando team in November 2021.

Erik von Ancken anchors and reports for WKMG-TV News 6 (CBS) in Orlando and is a two-time Emmy award-winning journalist in the prestigious and coveted "On-Camera Talent" categories for both anchoring and reporting. Erik joined the News 6 News Team in 2003 days after the tragic loss of space shuttle Columbia.