3 facing charges after investigation into 2020 Florida Senate 'ghost candidate' case, officials say

Prosecutors on Tuesday announced charges for three people accused in a 2020 No Party Affiliation (NPA) campaign finance scheme for the Florida Senate District 9 race.

In a statement from the State Attorney's Office for the 18th Judicial Circuit, State Attorney Phil Archer explained that some NPA candidates have been used by political parties as a way to siphon off votes from other candidates. These candidates are commonly referred to as "ghost" candidates.

"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," the statement read.

An investigation into the District 9 race resulted in charges against Jestine Iannotti, James Foglesong, and Benjamin Paris. According to Archer, Iannotti is listed as an "NPA candidate." Foglesong and Paris are listed as "Political Operatives."

Iannotti, 36, the so-called "ghost" candidate has been charged with six counts including fraud and falsely accepting donations. Foglesong has been charged with five counts including three felonies, and Paris charged with one misdemeanor. Only one of the three was taken into custody on Tuesday. Foglesong, 45, may bond out. He is facing the toughest charges, which include three felonies. 

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) believes Foglesong illegally funded Iannotti’s ghost campaign. Back in 2019, he was charged with political grand theft. Foglesong was accused of taking $20,000 from a political action committee involved in the Orange County Sheriff's race. He accepted a plea deal that granted him probation.

MORE NEWS: Woman visiting Disney World reports $40,000 in fraudulent charges after losing Apple Watch at EPCOT

"It really was a strategy it seems that either Republicans or outside groups that were favoring Republicans decided to try to use and influence the state senate races," said University of Central Florida Political Science Professor Aubrey Jewett.

Jewett saw this strategy deployed in at least three senate races across the state. Iannotti’s campaign was believed to be an attempt to help Republican candidate Jason Brodeur. The FDLE began an investigation into her candidacy to protect the integrity of our elections. Investigators said they found evidence to conclude Iannotti illegally accepted a $1,200 check from Foglesong. They also believe Iannotti and Foglesong falsely used the names of others to hide campaign donations.

"They didn’t really want to run, but, they allow their names to be put on the ballot and then hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent supporting them acting as if they were the real liberal or progressive in the race," said Jewett.

Paris, 38, is the head of the Seminole County Republican Party. He is accused of making a donation using someone else's name. Paris was also a member of the Seminole County Chamber of Commerce until Tuesday. The Chamber said he resigned from his role. FOX 35 News reached out to Paris for comment but has not heard back.

In the end, Brodeur won the election by over 7,600 votes. Even if Iannotti’s nearly 6,000 votes went to the Democrat, he still would have won.

"Certainly Democrats will be on the lookout for this kind of activity in upcoming elections, but I suspect Republicans will as well," said Jewitt.

The FDLE and State Attorney  Phil Archer each issued statements on the charges saying they will hold those accountable who try to undermine our elections.