Seminole County Republican Party Chair Ben Paris, political consultant Eric Foglesong and former independent candidate Jestine Iannotti have been charged in a multi-count indictment alleging election fraud in the 2020 election in Senate District 9.
Iannotti had run in the SD 9 election as an independent candidate in a contest that critics had alleged was a “ghost candidate” maneuver intended to draw votes away from Democratic candidate Patricia Sigman, to aid the election of Republican Jason Brodeur, who won.
Twelve total charges came down through indictments sought by the State Attorney for Florida’s 18th Judicial Circuit after a Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) investigation. The investigation began in July 2021 after JC 18 State Attorney Phil Archer requested the FDLE look into the election.
In a news release, the FDLE said Iannotti illegally accepted a $1,200 cash donation from Foglesong in support of her candidacy. The FDLE release said that agents found Iannotti and Foglesong falsely used the names of other individuals as contributors in official campaign finance documents. The release also reported that agents said that Paris provided the name and address of one of the individuals.
“Elections are the cornerstone of our democracy, and we must do everything we can to ensure they are fair and transparent,” FDLE Acting Commissioner Mark Glass said in the statement. “Protecting the integrity of our elections is a top priority in Florida, and that includes making sure candidates follow the laws.”
In a news release from his office, Archer said, “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 the 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.”
Added Archer, “Today’s actions represent our commitment to ensuring the integrity of Florida’s election process and holding those who violate state campaign laws accountable.”
The State Attorney’s Office said that attorneys for the three defendants have agreed to surrender voluntarily to answer the charges, but specific details were not immediately available.
Paris and Foglesong did not immediately respond to Florida Politics’ inquiries. Florida Politics was unable to reach Iannotti.
Seminole County Democratic Party Chair Lynn Moira Dictor issued a statement reading:
“This was a long time coming. Democrats should feel a sense of vindication today for what has been going on for decades in Seminole County. The GOP in this county is the party of corruption. Now it’s all coming out, and the party of corruption has been exposed. They stole the Florida Senate race in 2020 from Patricia Sigman. She should be in Tallahassee right now.”
Iannotti, 36, of Winter Springs, was charged with six counts, including making false, fictitious or fraudulent acts or statements, improper acceptance of donations, and perjury.
Foglesong, 45, of Winter Park, was charged with improper contributions to a campaign, making false, fictitious or fraudulent acts, statements or representations, making improper cash contributions, and making false reports.
This is not Foglesong’s first arrest in his campaign consulting business. Foglesong pleaded guilty a couple of years ago to stealing $20,000 from a political action committee he chaired to support the election of John Mina, who was elected Orange County Sheriff in 2018. When Foglesong completed court ordered sanctions, including paying restitution, the judge withheld adjudication. But that case may reopen now.
Paris, 38, a former Longwood Mayor, was charged with one count of making a contribution through or in the name of another, a misdemeanor.
Paris ran unsuccessfully for Seminole County Commission in 2020. In 2021 he was elected Chair of the Seminole County Republican Party. He also works for Brodeur at the Seminole County Regional Chamber of Commerce.
The Orlando Sentinel reported that Iannotti was a former Seminole County substitute teacher who had no political experience before entering the 2020 Senate contest. Afterward, she moved to Sweden.
The paper also reported that her independent candidacy was promoted by a pair of entities chaired by then-GOP political consultant Alex Alvarado, with ads Miami prosecutors have said were tailored to siphon votes from the Democrats in each race.
The “ghost candidates” scandal, which included efforts to use independent candidates to siphon off Democratic votes in South Florida races in 2020 as well, has led to criminal charges in South Florida including of former Republican Sen. Frank Artiles, and various resignations from various consulting firms.
In his July 29, 2021, letter to the FDLE, Archer said he had received materials referred to him from Florida’s 11th Judicial Circuit State Attorney’s Office, which was investigating the South Florida case.
“While the initial complaint involved the District 37 (Senate) campaign, the subsequent investigation and prosecution by the 11th Circuit determined that some activity may have involved the Senate District 9 campaign in the 18th and 7th Circuits,” Archer wrote in that letter.
SD 9 covered Seminole County, in the 18th Judicial Circuit, and a small part of southern Volusia County, in the 7th Judicial Circuit.
In the 2020 SD 9 election, Brodeur received 50.3% of the vote. Sigman earned 47.5% support and Iannotti garnered 2.1%.