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“Ghost” candidate judge shields records to protect privacy of ex-lawmaker’s contacts

Orlando Sentinel, Annie Martin

When state agents raided the home of former state Sen. Frank Artiles, after he was indicted on felony charges for his role in Florida’s 2020 “ghost” candidate scheme, they left with a cache of data that included years of communications related to his work as a political consultant.

Those emails, texts and other messages Artiles exchanged with other political insiders could have spilled into the open, providing a rare glimpse into the behind-the-scenes workings of Florida politics as seen by the well-connected state lawmaker-turned-lobbyist.

Media outlets, including the Orlando Sentinel, have fought for the records’ disclosure, citing state law that dictates, absent specific exemptions, evidence collected by prosecutors becomes available to the public once it’s handed over to the defense in a process called discovery.

But Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Ariana Fajardo Orshan has consistently sought to limit the disclosures, citing the need to protect the privacy of Artiles’ business and personal contacts. On Tuesday, she issued a ruling declining to release a list of Artiles’ contacts stored on his phones and other personal devices — meaning even their names will remain secret.

“The court cannot and will not violate the privacy rights of innocent third parties who could fall victim by the publication of their personal information that may be purposefully or inadvertently be published in the media’s version of the story,” Fajardo Orshan wrote in the ruling.

Government watchdog groups, First Amendment advocates and lawyers who have watched the case differed on whether Fajardo Orshan has been right to shield the records.

“What occurred with the ghost candidate scheme was one of the most complex political crimes in Florida’s history and I think citizens are entitled to know who was involved in this scheme,” said Michael Barfield, the director of public access for the Florida Center for Government Accountability, a government watchdog group.

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